According to media reports, around 150 million new voters in the age group of 18 to 23 years exercised their political franchise for the first time in 2014. All political parties campaigned for India’s youth vote bank, the largest in the world, today. Politicians spoke of youth empowerment as the key to India’s success and rightly so.
Yet, it seems that we must remind our policymakers that empowering youth also involves safeguarding their future, protecting them from all probable dangers and allowing them to make informed choices. For this, welfare must override business. It is an open secret that business establishments court policymakers in the run for profit-making. Case in point, the tobacco industry, which has been lobbying in favour of weak, ineffective and delayed regulations on tobacco products for years. Regardless of the government in power, cigarette companies as well as bidi and smokeless tobacco associations rush down the power corridors with fallacious and unreasonable data to block tobacco control laws.
India enacted its tobacco control law – the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) in 2003, even before the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) came into force. Despite roadblocks posed by the industry, India has recorded several ‘firsts’ in the sphere of tobacco control: India was among the first to implement a national tobacco control programme, the first to regulate depiction of tobacco use in films and television programmes and the first to adopt a national target of 30% relative reduction in tobacco use by 2025.
One of the measures of COTPA that has received stiff resistance is the pictorial health warnings on tobacco product packages. Ever since the first set of warnings were introduced in 2006, the tobacco industry has rallied, lobbied, and succeeded in diluting and delaying the warnings on account of loss of revenue and clearing massive stockpiles. The most recent setback has been a delay in implementing large sized, 85% pictorial health warnings from April 1, 2015 following the absurd recommendation of a parliamentary committee on lack of scientific evidence on tobacco and cancer. The absurdity of these developments is compounded by the presence of a bidi baron as a member of the committee ‘scrutinizing’ tobacco control laws in India!
Youth are, without doubt, important stakeholders in tobacco control. While 5500 youth initiate tobacco use everyday in the country, school and college students have also been advocating for strong tobacco control laws since the 1990s. Youth have made representations to policymakers on pictorial health warnings since a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development first recommended them in 2001. In 2007, school students had written to the then Health Minister in support of strong pictorial health warnings. After severe delays, a mild set of warnings was implemented for the first time in 2009.
In another incident, as part of India’s legal mandate to rotate pictorial health warnings, thousands of youth signed a petition to the then Prime Minister requesting timely implementation of pack warnings depicting ‘mouth cancer’ in December 2010. They visited several Members of Parliament across political parties. Those warnings were never implemented. Three months since abeyance of the April 1st deadline, thousands of young Indians and tobacco control activists s have already written to the Health Ministry and the Hon’ble Prime Minister urging immediate implementation of the 85% warnings.
Pictorial health warnings, between 2009 and 2014, in India have covered 40% of the front display area of all tobacco products. This mandate falls short of the WHO-FCTC recommendation to cover at least 50% or more. Other countries in the South-Asian region like Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand have already introduced at least 85% pictorial health warnings and Australia has moved forward with plain packaging of tobacco products. India ranks poorly at 136th, in comparison to other countries on pictorial health warnings.
Very simply, pictorial health warnings convey the consequences of tobacco use. They warn users and potential users about what they are signing up for, with every intake. For young people, pack warnings are an effective way to understand the irreparable damage that tobacco use can cause, especially since the tobacco companies see tremendous merit in investing millions on the same packages, to make them colourful and attractive.
Off late, the government’s decision to stall the 85% warnings, loosen regulation on depiction of tobacco imagery in films as well as the Delhi High Court’s directive, on restricting the ban on chewing tobacco in Delhi, are regressive and murky. While countries are strategising roadmaps on tobacco-free futures, India seems to be on the wrong side of the road.
As for the tobacco industry, please know that youth around the world stand together for ‘No More Tobacco in the 21st Century’.