x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tobacco warnings have failed to appear

Anti-smoking activist blames India's powerful industry lobby as court-ordered deadline for graphic health displays on packaging passes without compliance.

A man is chided after lighting up a cigarette in Mumbai.
A man is chided after lighting up a cigarette in Mumbai.

NEW DELHI // Anti-smoking groups welcome the introduction of graphic warnings on cigarette packs and other tobacco products but are sceptical they can have much of an effect on the country's 300 million tobacco users, more than half of whom live in the countryside. The warnings, which show photos of decayed gums and diseased lungs as well as a skull and crossbones, were supposed to be in place in November but were delayed after lobbying by tobacco manufacturers. However, last month, the Supreme Court stepped in and set a cut-off date of May 31 after which all packs of cigarettes, beedis (hand-rolled cigarettes) and gutka (a kind of chewing tobacco that also includes crushed betel nut) must carry pictorial warnings taking up about 40 per cent of the packaging area. Anti-tobacco groups alleged that the government wanted to delay implementing the rules until after the just-completed general elections. Yet, more than one week after the ruling and almost three weeks after the elections, the new cigarette packs have yet to make an appearance on store shelves. Mahesh Chaturvedi, who heads Nai Daur, an anti-tobacco group based in Bhopal, says this is in blatant violation of Supreme Court orders, which made pictorial warnings mandatory from this month. "Even after a week there is no sign of photo warnings on tobacco products. The government is not serious about the implementation". He said the government was concerned that the new rules would spark a backlash at the polls from the more than 15m people connected to the tobacco industry in Madhya Pradesh state. There are no federal government statistics that show how many people are involved in the tobacco industry. Some estimates say as many as 45m people could be involved from cultivation through manufacturing. "The government, due to vote-bank politics, delayed the implementation of rulings for more than three years. The rules framed by the government were amended by [ministers] from time to time at the instance of the tobacco manufacturers lobby, which has a big say in Indian politics," Mr Chaturvedi said. Although cigarette packs are still not carrying the warnings, some smokers are already anticipating their effect. Sourabh Shukla has smoked for the past 17 years, but graphic pictures have put him off. "Now I can no longer justify my addiction to my wife and non-smoking friends. Although the new packs have not arrived in the market, [the pictures] will make it more uncomfortable to buy them and carry them home," he said. Cigarette sellers are less concerned. Vijay Sharma, who runs a tobacco store in New Delhi, said: "I don't think there will be any effect on sales. Even now everybody, at least those in the cities, is aware of the ill effects of tobacco on health, but still people consume it. Nobody can drive a person to quit if he is not willing to." In India, the tobacco industry contributes more than 95 billion rupees (Dh7.4bn) annually in taxes, 80 per cent of which comes from cigarette sales. A study conducted jointly by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation found, however, that tobacco use drains around 350bn rupees from the Indian economy in the form of healthcare costs and productivity losses. The World Health Organization says diseases caused by tobacco consumption kill more than 900,000 people each year in India; the figure is estimated to rise to one million by 2010. A Ramdoss, India's health minister in 2008, admitted at the time that he was being pressured by some politicians and heads of different states not to ban smoking in public places. According to a recent health ministry report, more than 300m people above the age of nine in India use tobacco products, with new smokers increasing by between five per cent to seven per cent a year. Tobacco manufactures in India produce more than 100bn cigarettes annually, but these only account for about 15 per cent of tobacco consumption in the country. The majority of India's tobacco users are in the rural countryside, where many smoke beedis or chew gutka and are unlikely to be affected by the new warnings. "It is very difficult to implement these rulings in rural India, which has almost 70 per cent of the tobacco users in India. The government couldn't even enforce the ban on smoking in public places like hospitals and schools in rural areas," Mr Chaturvedi said. According to the health ministry report, more than 800bn beedis are sold annually in India. They are much cheaper than cigarettes, but are also more detrimental to health, according to some doctors. "More people die from the consumption of bids than cigarettes in India. Not just health, hygienically beedis have an adverse effect on the personality of the smoker compared to cigarettes," said Naseer Ansari, a doctor at New Life, an addiction centre in Patna, 600km north-west of Kolkata. Although beedis have less tobacco than cigarettes, they have more tar, nicotine and other toxic substances. Eighty-five per cent of the world's tobacco for beedi is grown in India, which occupies 35 per cent of the total area under tobacco cultivation, mostly in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Beedi manufacturers say the government order to display the graphic warnings on tobacco products will directly affect their livelihood, and workers in Andhra Pradesh have threatened to strike in protest against the move. More than 13m people are associated with the cigarette industry, the majority of them women and children. "The government is aware of the facts about the growing beedi market. The highly labour-intensive- based industry, which provides large-scale employment, gives it a powerful voice and that is one of the reasons why the government has been silent," Mr Chaturvedi said. jandrabi@thenational.ae