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Another blow to enforcement of tobacco control policies in India

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Pictorial warnings on tobacco products most likely postponed 7th time

Right after the strong and effective guidelines to stop tobacco industry interference in health policies were adopted by the government representatives of 160 countries including India, the pictorial warnings on all tobacco products that were supposed to become mandatory from 30 November 2008 in India, were, again delayed "" reportedly due to hectic lobbying by the industry allies and other entities like the beedi growers' association.

Pictorial warnings on tobacco products have been delayed, at least, seven times. Before going to the 3rd Conference of Parties (COP3) to the global tobacco treaty (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had revealed before the Central Information Commission that tobacco industry is putting "pressure" to relax the tobacco control policies (source: The Hindu, 14 November 2008).

The Article 5.3 of the global tobacco treaty, if defined broadly, recognizes "the tobacco industry's fundamental and irreconcilable conflict with public health."-

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The tobacco industry interference has times and again weakened and delayed the enforcement of the public health policies - for example, more than 70 court cases were filed against tobacco control policies in Indian courts in September 2008, and due to aggressive lobbying, the consultative Group of Ministers (GoM) formed to review the pictorial warnings on tobacco products, had diluted the pictorial warnings provision and postponed the implementation of pictorial warnings on tobacco products at least six-times earlier. This is the seventh time the pictorial warnings on tobacco products have been again postponed, as reliable sources revealed, to the end of May 2009.

The industry interference in public health policies certainly needs urgent attention to save lives otherwise it will continue to threaten to reverse the great advancements made in forging public health policies and implementing them. Meantime tobacco continues to kill more than a million people in India, and 5.4 million globally, every year.

Also when these pictorial warnings were finally approved by a GoM, why did the GoM met again in an emergency meeting a week before the pictorial warnings provision was about to become mandatory? GoM including the Union External Affairs Minister - Pranab Mukherjee, the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister - PR Dasmunsi, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment - Oscar Fernandes the Union Minister for Commerce and Industry -Kamal Nath, Union Minister for Culture and Urban Development -Jaipal Reddy and Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Anbumani Ramadoss,

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The GOM in an earlier meeting this year headed by India's External Affairs Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee had agreed for two mild images of a scorpion signal depicting cancer or an x-ray plate of a man suffering from lung cancer as pictorial warning to deter people from smoking.

These pictorial warnings provide smokers with helpful information on the health effects. Most smokers want this information, and certainly want their children to have this information too. The tobacco industry is continuing its decades-long strategy of trying to minimize the effectiveness of package warnings. The tobacco industry is no friend of smokers--and ironically it's true that "the tobacco industry kills its best customers."

Pictorial warnings on all tobacco products are a good public health strategy because the cost of package warnings is paid for by tobacco companies, not government. Also this should not be looked upon as an isolated initiative rather has to be supported by comprehensive healthcare, legislative and education programmes to attain long-run public health gains. Pictorial warnings may also be appropriate, particularly in countries with low literacy rates or where research shows that smokers are ignoring standard warning labels.

Several nations have implemented strong health warning label requirements. Examples include:

- Canada, whose health minister recently proposed enlarging the labels from 30% of the package face to 60%;

- Thailand, which has added the message "SMOKING CAUSES IMPOTENCE" to its list of required warnings; and

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- Australia, which was the first nation to require that "how to quit" information be printed on every pack.

- South Africa, Singapore and Poland also require strong warning labels.

Over past years there were consistent efforts to water down the implementation of the tobacco control policies in India. India's Union Minister of Labour and Employment, Mr Oscar Fernandes, who is also a member of GoM, had earlier said while replying to a written querry in the Lok Sabha (parliament) on 21 April 2008: "Public health measures such as pictorial health warnings on tobacco products don't have any immediate economic impact on the industry due to the item's addictive nature and the time taken for demand reduction, according to various studies." Mr Fernandes also told the Parliament that 'his ministry was receiving representation from various organisations/central trade unions such as CITU, the Tobacco Institute of India, Federation of Farmers Association and others particularly relating to apprehension of loss of employment, arrangement of alternative jobs to the affected 'beedi' workers and adverse effect on health among others (Source: PTI, 21 April 2008).

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Bobby Ramakant is a development journalist and has been writing on development issues since 1991. Health is one of the key focus areas he writes on. He is also a World Health Organization (WHO)'s WNTD awardee for 2008
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