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Current warning labels on Indian tobacco products ineffective¬¬ – concludes an international expert on tobacco control

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India’s new warning labels on tobacco products fall short of the international standards for strong warning labels, according to Professor Geoffrey Fong, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, who is in India with his research team to meet with researchers at the Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health.

A world expert in tobacco control, Professor Geoffrey Fong made this conclusion based on research that he and his international team of experts have conducted on the impact of warning labels in a massive project across 20 countries.

“Warning labels that include graphic and clear images of the devastating diseases due to tobacco use are known to increase thoughts about quitting and to be used by smokers,” Professor Fong, whose research on warning labels has examined the impact of graphic warnings in Canada, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Australia, compared to text-only warnings in the other countries, including United States, China, France, Germany, Netherlands.

In July 2006, India introduced new warnings on cigarette and bidi packs and on packages of Gutkha and on tins of loose tobacco used for paanmasala. The original law for picture warnings was passed in 2003 and called for graphic photos of mouth cancer due to tobacco use. The new warnings would also include skull and crossbones, which is an international sign of poison.

“The skull and crossbones is a universal warning sign that the substance or product is very dangerous,” said Professor Fong. “And this is true of tobacco products. For example, we know that between one-third and one-half of all regular smokers will die of a smoking-related disease. It is the only product that kills people when used as intended.”

However, due to extreme pressure from the tobacco industry in India, especially the bidi industry, the implementation of the law was delayed 6 times over 5 years.

Then in March 2008, in an unprecedented move, the strong graphic warnings that had already been notified by the Government in 2006 and 2007 were changedto be weaker. The widely understood symbol of Skull and Crossbones was replaced by a scorpion. The vivid colour photos of real examples of mouth cancer due to tobacco use were changed to a fuzzy image of a chest x-ray.

“Healis has been one of the dedicated organizations in India that has been actively involved in research to facilitate implementation of much more effective warning labels on tobacco products.” said Professor Fong.

But even these new weakened warnings were delayed in their introduction. And they were made smaller (from 50% to 40%), limited (from both sides of the pack to just the back of the pack).

Professor Fong commented on the power of graphic warnings in other countries: “Countries such as Canada, Brazil, Singapore, and Mauritius have introduced very powerful warnings that have helped motivate smokers to quit and prevent young people from starting to smoke.”

“The tobacco industry knows how effective the warnings are, and that’s why they try their best to prevent warnings, weaken them, and delay their introduction.” The fact that the warnings have been so attacked by the tobacco industry in India is a sure sign that they are afraid of the impact of graphic warnings, Professor Fong says.

Close to one million people in India will die this year because of tobacco use. And since the graphic warnings were originally proposed and approved by the Government 6 years ago, about 5 million people have died.

Professor Fong commented on these delays. ”We know that strong graphic warnings are effective in increasing knowledge, motivating quitting, and preventing young people from tobacco use. How many of those that died could have been saved by the knowledge and vivid displays on the warnings that show what tobacco really does to people?”

Maharashtra earns an estimated 6 lakhs from fines for smoking in public places

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Less than three months of the ban on smoking in public places, the FDA claims to have already collected a whopping fine of Rs. 5, 79,925 from those found breaking the rule in Maharashtra. This collection is the amount that has been taken till November 2008 and is among the biggest collected from a state in the country.

The ban on smoking in public places was already in place since 2004. However, due to lack of awareness, required manpower and infrastructure, it did not provide the expected results. The Central government had reinforced the ban on smoking in public, which was imposed under the Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places Rules, 2008. The ban came into force from October 2, mainly to protect individuals from the hazards of second-hand smoke and to help smokers kick the habit. With the help of 250 FDA officials and support of police personnel, fines were successfully collected.

Mr. Mohan Patankar, Jt. Commissioner FDA, says, “This ban was long introduced in 2004 and we did our best to fine the offenders even then. The collections from 2004-2008 (July) amounted to Rs 2, 55,000 as against Rs. 5,79,925 in just four months (Aug- Nov 08).This was largely due to lack of infrastructure, necessary manpower, vehicles etc. Now, due to increased awareness and support from police personnel, we have noticed significant reduction in such instances. Hotels and restaurants have also strictly been following the ban. Easy availability of challans and receipts has also facilitated the process. It can be downloaded from the net for HR administrators and other competent authorities.”

The public was also more sensitized about the ban and there was a massive public support for the ban which played a significant role in the implementation of the ban.

Dr. PC Gupta, Director, Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Research said, “We applaud the FDA on providing us with this encouraging sign. The fines are crucial in the attitudinal transformation among general public and create a higher level of awareness. The general public already understands the significance of the ban and supports its cause. In our survey 92% respondents all over India and 96% in Mumbai strongly favoured regulations for making all workplaces and public places in India smoke-free. We are confident that effective implementation of policies such as smoke-free public places and pictorial warnings on tobacco products will play a concrete role in improving public health. Perhaps the government should take a cue from the success of this ban and implement the much awaited law on pictorial warnings; it is high time to do so in the interest of the public.”

The implementation of a smoke-free environment is the primary and most effective way to ensure that a non-smoker’s right to good health and right to breathe air devoid of smoke should be given preference over a smoker’s right to smoke and cause harm to those around him/her.

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Written by sreelakshmi

7 January, 2009 at 10:56 pm