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Is there a duty to discourage?

Whilst smoking is dangerous and, for many it’s been fatal, aren’t alcohol, fatty foods and obsessive exercise also unhealthy? Karan Thapar examines...

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:10 IST

The Health Minister says smoking is increasing at a “frightening” rate. He calls the situation “alarming”. And he adds that the time has come “to scare smokers”. Is he right?

My answer is the issue hinges on another question: does the government have a duty to discourage smoking? I would say it does, but I concede it’s not a simple matter. Whilst smoking is dangerous and, for many it’s been fatal, aren’t alcohol, fatty foods and obsessive exercise also unhealthy? So if the government has a duty to prevent smoking, does it also have a duty to encourage teetotalism, healthy eating and moderate exercise? Is smoking, therefore, the thin end of the wedge?

No. I believe you can legitimately argue that smoking is different. The difference is whereas alcohol and fatty foods are only dangerous in excess — and that’s by definition true of obsessive exercise — even a single cigarette is potentially risky. Red wine and ghee have medicinal qualities. Cigarettes and bidis don’t.

Now if governments have a duty to discourage smoking, it follows this has to be done effectively. And if smoking is increasing “alarmingly”, touching “frightening” levels, then yes, it’s time to scare smokers. It’s also time to frighten those who may be tempted to start.

The question is how should this be done. Today textual cautions on cigarette and bidi packets do not deter. Their message is discounted each time someone reaches for a fag.

Do we, therefore, need pictorial warnings? That depends on whether graphic pictures of the horrible diseases smoking or chewing tobacco will cause people to stop. Research from the 15 or so countries where they are compulsory suggests it may: 67 per cent of Brazilian and 58 per cent of Canadian smokers say pictorial warnings have made them think twice about continuing.

The next stage of the argument follows inexorably. If governments have a duty to discourage, then pictorial warnings must be made compulsory on cigarette and bidi packets, and all tobacco related products. The plea that the pictures must not be “repulsive”, or that skull and cross-bone symbols are offensive to Muslims is irrelevant. If the disease is repulsive, can the pictures be anything else? And if the skull and cross-bone is offensive it only means it will be more effective.

In India there are two more reasons for enforcing pictorial warnings. Ours is a multilingual country where at least 36 per cent are illiterate. Textual warnings are likely to be in the wrong language or altogether incomprehensible. Pictorial warnings are the best way of reaching the poor and uneducated.

How then do you explain the government’s reluctance to implement its own decision making pictorial warnings compulsory? Although the matter was settled in June 2006, its enforcement has been postponed four times. The Health Minister says the issue has to be considered alongside its associated implications. And what are these? Very simply, the fear that the livelihood of 30 lakh tobacco-industry workers could be affected. But what about the 250 million who smoke and the 750 million who may be tempted? Can 30 lakh outweigh 1 billion?

Yes, if the tobacco-industry throws its money behind them and if they form a sizeable proportion of the electorate in constituencies where ministers who have to take the decision seek election. By his own admission, 37 per cent of Pranab Mukherjee’s Jangipur constituency comprises bidi workers. And he’s head of the Group of Ministers handling pictorial warnings.

The net result is that the Health Minister is stymied by his own cabinet colleagues. He knows that to be effective, a warning must scare. His colleagues accept the need to warn but not the necessity to frighten. And the tobacco industry would rather it was said softly in case smokers listen. There are no prizes for guessing who’s going to win!