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With 5500 New Users Daily, How Can The Irreparable Damage Caused By Tobacco Be Stopped?

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By Manjusha Chatterjee

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’.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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