The government said on Saturday it will take a "measured and responsible" decision on increasing the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco packaging, signalling a possible climbdown on the controversial issue after several BJP lawmakers claimed there was no link between smoking and cancer.
The development came amidst reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked health minister J P Nadda during the BJP’s national executive meet in Bengaluru to appoint a committee to study the issue and submit a report. The reports said Modi also favoured larger warnings covering at least 60% of tobacco packaging.
Earlier this week, the health ministry put off a decision to introduce new graphic warnings covering 85% of tobacco packaging from April 1 after a parliamentary committee headed by BJP MP Dilip Gandhi said there were no credible Indian studies proving a link between smoking and cancer and other diseases.
Shyama Charan Gupta, another BJP member of the Lok Sabha panel whose Rs 350-crore business group includes Shyam Bidi Works, also defended tobacco products and sought domestic research on Indian tobacco products such as the beedi.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the BJP meet in Bengaluru, finance minister Arun Jaitley said the government’s decision on pictorial warnings on tobacco packs would not be based on the opinions of individuals.
"Individuals can give individual opinions, but government takes measured and responsible decisions…The government will always take a measured decision as far as this issue is concerned," he said.
Jaitley said the two budgets presented by him reflected the government’s “collective thinking” on the use of tobacco. He added a "multi-pronged" approach is needed to discourage tobacco use.
Modi also reportedly said MPs with "conflicting interests" should be removed from the Committee of Subordinate Legislations that is examining the provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003 related to pictorial warnings.
However, Jaitley did not comment on the issue of removing any MPs from the parliamentary committee and said, "There is a system in the parliament and it has also been written in the rules of procedures.
"There is one opinion that it should be changed. This is in the hands of the parliament, in the hands of the chair. It is not the issue concerning the government," he added.
Health minister Nadda, while talking to the media, said he did not subscribe to the views of BJP MPs who claimed that smoking had no ill effects.
Besides Gandhi and Gupta, another BJP MP - Ram Prasad Sarmah – too claimed there was no clear proof linking smoking with cancer. Gupta claimed he could produce chain smokers of beedis who had no diseases. He also said sugar is not banned despite causing diabetes.
One million people die in India every year from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco is projected to account for 13% of all deaths in the country by 2020.