India is stepping up efforts to encourage its 120 million smokers to kick the habit. From September, tobacco product packaging will be required to showcase a new set of pictorial and textual health warnings. They will also have to carry the number for a toll-free line to help tobacco users quit.
The new guidelines were issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) on Tuesday, April 3. They will apply to cigarettes, bidis and chewing tobacco alike.
Pictorial health warnings, which already cover 85 percent of the display area on product packaging, will be enhanced and updated. They will be accompanied by textual warnings such as ‘tobacco causes painful death’ and ‘tobacco causes cancer.’ The number of the government’s toll-free ‘quitline’ – 1800-11-2356 – will also be shown prominently.
The existing health warnings on tobacco products were supposed to expire on March 31. The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COPTA) identifies a rotation period of two years for the health warnings before they should be updated. The MoHFW extended the shelf life of the current warnings by six months to August 31 before they are replaced by the new warnings on September 1.
The Centre’s efforts to enforce stricter tobacco control has often brought it into conflict with the country’s powerful tobacco lobby. Last year, the tobacco industry successfully petitioned the Karnataka High Court (KHC) to repeal the 85 percent rule. This was overturned in January by the Supreme Court (SC). ‘Health of a citizen is of primacy…he or she should be aware of that which can affect or deteriorate the condition of health,’ the SC said in its decision.
Health warnings a success – but more needs to be done
Tobacco control efforts in the country have been broadly successful. The number of Indian tobacco users has been reduced by seventeen percent since 2010. Despite this, tobacco use remains a significant public health concern. India continues to lose one million lives and Rs 1.04 crore to smoking every year.
Further challenges remain. Although the number of young people smoking is decreasing across the country, more than half a million children smoke every day.
Curbing smoking rates is vital to improving public health. India is grappling with a rising crisis of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which cause 61 percent of deaths in the country. Tobacco use is a risk factor for a number of NCDs. These include lung cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and strokes. It also aggravates the burden of a number of infectious diseases. For example, 7.9 percent of tuberculosis-related deaths in India are caused by tobacco use.
The 85 percent pictorial health warnings on tobacco packaging have proven effective at encouraging Indian smokers to quit. Meanwhile, the quitline was accessed by 3,043 smokers in its first five months. Forty percent of quitline users were able to give up tobacco. The new guidelines could amplify the benefits of these measures and affirm the resolution of the Centre’s stance against tobacco.