The health ministry has finalised a proposal to make the dangers of tobacco-use a part of essential reading for school students even as a fierce debate rages over pictorial warnings on packs.
Health minister JP Nadda will ask the human resource development ministry to include tobacco-related health information in the school curriculum for students aged between 12 and 15 years, when they were first likely to start use.
Of India’s 275 million tobacco users, 14% are under the age of 15 but activists say it is gross underestimation. Nearly one-third of the users are children, they claim.
“… the health message should reach potential tobacco-users before they become addicted, so it is important to ensure children know the risks before they start,” said a health ministry official who did not want to be named.
Hard-hitting anti-tobacco advertisements and pictorial pack warnings deter children from starting use and increase the number of people who want to quit, the World Health Organisation says.
Despite bans on advertising, sale to minors and smoking in public places, more than one in three adults use smoking (cigarettes, beedi etc) and smokeless tobacco (gutka, chewable tobacco) in India.
The ministry came in for severe criticism after it failed to meet the April 1 deadline for new pictorial warnings that were to cover 85% of tobacco packs on both sides.
Each year, tobacco kills one million people in India, estimates the Indian Council of Medical Research, yet the ministry went ahead with the deferment on the recommendations of a parliamentary committee that wanted to study the economic implications of the move.
It has since emerged that some of the panel members are in a “conflict of interest” with the issue at hand. BJP’s Shyam Charan Gupta , for instance, is a beedi baron.
India has one of the world’s weakest warning regimes. Health alerts appear on one side, covering 20% of the pack.
According to a 2014 report by the Canadian Cancer Society, India is ranked 136th among 198 countries listed according to the size of their tobacco warnings.
In Asia with similar tobacco use patterns, warnings cover 85% of the pack on both sides in Thailand, 90% in Sri Lanka and 75% in Nepal.