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The right to frighten

The government has both a right and a duty to warn off smokers. And if a warning has to be effective, it has to be stark, even disturbing, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Apr 24, 2009 23:33 IST

When you think of the number of times I’ve criticised Anbumani Ramadoss — and usually pretty severely — for seeking to ban smoking or prohibit smoking in films, you might wonder why today I’m writing to support his proposal to force cigarette and bidi manufacturers to carry warning pictures and symbols on their packets. Am I being contradictory? Not at all.

First, however, a few critical facts. India has an estimated 30 lakh bidi and cigarette workers compared to an overall population nearing 110 crore. To put it differently, that’s 0.03 per cent of the total. Equally importantly, forty per cent of all health problems faced by the Indian population are tobacco-related. And the sum of money spent on such ailments by the central government is almost Rs 45,000 crore. Admittedly, these figures have been released by Anbumani Ramadoss, but I see no reason to doubt them. Certainly, no one has challenged them.

Beyond the facts, I don’t think even the most committed of smokers would dispute the habit is bad, if not actually dangerous. Indeed, many smokers actually want to give up. Many have tried and failed whilst several are looking for help.

Faced with this situation, Ramadoss decided to frighten smokers into giving up. If he had got his way, from the 1st, all cigarette and bidi packets would have been required to carry skull and bone symbols as well as pictures of cancerous tumours, rotting teeth and diseased throats. No doubt that sounds like a drastic remedy, but is it justified?

My answer is a considered yes. The government has both a right and a duty to warn. And if a warning has to be effective, it has to be stark, even disturbing. There’s no use whispering. It won’t be heard. In fact, when the consequence could be cancer, you have to frighten the pants off all smokers!

Now how does this differ from Ramadoss’s earlier behaviour? The difference is this time he wasn’t attempting to ban smoking or prohibit such scenes in films. That is, and in my eyes will continue to be, unacceptable. It intrudes on our inalienable right to decide for ourselves, which includes the freedom to make the ‘wrong’ choice. He was merely warning smokers. He was helping them make an informed decision but not curtailing their right to do so.

The question is, do such warnings work? I would say they do. I recall something similar, though a lot milder, on British television in the early ’70s. Watching with my sister Kiran, who happened to be smoking, we encountered an astonishingly insightful advertisement. Two policemen were walking on their beat when they saw ahead of them a rather beautiful blonde smoking. The ad had a sharp impact on Kiran.

“Wow,” said the first bobby. “Look at that girl!”

“She’s smoking,” grimaced his colleague.

“Look at those lips. Imagine kissing them.”

“Like kissing an ashtray.” As I burst out laughing, I caught Kiran from the corner of my eye. She was stubbing out her cigarette.

In these circumstances, what do you make of Ramadoss’s revelation that four chief ministers and 150 MPs have met him and a further seven chief ministers have written pleading that he drop his plan to force cigarette and bidi packets to carry warnings? Ramadoss claims they are more worried about the jobs of 30 lakh tobacco workers than the health of 110 crore Indians. That’s one possible conclusion. Another is that they don’t have a long term vision for India. They’re only concerned about short term votes.

When Britain and Ireland banned smoking in public places, it wasn’t an easy decision to take — and I, for one, did not approve — but few doubted that from a national health perspective it made sense. It wasn’t a ban on smoking but a huge extension of the areas where you cannot smoke. After initial grumbling, the British and the Irish accepted. Like bitter medicine, they knew it’s for their good. Do our politicians have the strength to act similarly?

(Thapar recently got the Asian Television Award for the 'Best Current Affairs Presenter' for the 4th time)