India will miss the April 1 deadline to put bigger health warnings on cigarette packets after a parliamentary panel asked for time to gauge the economic impact of the decision on tobacco farmers, in a move that riled activists who say India needs to quickly wean its citizens off addictions to products such as cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Studies suggest over a million die in India from tobacco-related illnesses every year, most of which are cancers of the mouth and lungs, and graphic warnings – such as photographs of tumours – are seen as possible deterrents. Tobacco will account for 13% of all deaths in India by 2020.
But, a parliamentary committee led by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Dilip K Gandhi said the impact of the move, which needed 85% of the packaging on products used for graphic warnings, on the industry needs to be looked at before it can be implemented.
"There is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All studies are done abroad… We have to study the Indian context, as four crore people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh are dependent on bidi-making through Tendupatta," Gandhi said.
Video:BJP MP says no Indian study suggests smoking causes cancer
In his letter to health minister JP Nadda, Gandhi recommended that the labeling be put off as its impact on tobacco workers and manufacturers and revenue needed to be examined.
“We have put the order in abeyance as the parliamentary committee wants to deliberate on some issues. We stand by our commitment to introduce new picture warnings,” news agency AFP quoted Nadda as saying.
Gandhi’s comments were criticised by activists and lawmakers alike.
"Do not listen to these things. Science is science. You cannot compromise on science," Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said.
But, the opposition Congress hit back at the government. Party general secretary Digvijaya Singh wondered if there was a link between the BJP and cigarette manufacturers.
Lawmakers of other parties were also unsparing. “(That) tobacco causes cancer is reality. My father has been an oral cancer survivor for nearly 15 years now and I have experienced the suffering first hand. We recently lost colleague RR Patil, who was like an elder brother, to cancer due to tobacco,” said Supriya Sule, Lok Sabha member from the Nationalist Congress Party.
She, however, agreed that the impact on the industry and workers needs to be looked at. “We are not looking at complete ban overnight as we do understand the need for creating alternate jobs, so it can happen gradually,” she said.
Padmini Somani from Salaam Bombay Foundation said, “An estimated 15% of tobacco users in India are in the age group of 13-15 and we fear this is gross underestimation. Nearly one-third of the current tobacco users are children."
Dr Monika Arora from Public Health Foundation of India said, “Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty that India has signed, says about 50% should be covered under pictorial pack warnings. India currently is abiding by 40% on just one side, which translates into 20% in total."
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck surgeon at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, said, “Tobacco industry all over the world has admitted that their product is harmful, therefore, they agreed to adopt pack warning as part of their manufacturer liability.”
“In fact, tobacco is the only consumer product that has no good use whatsoever apart of killing every third consumer. Tobacco is the attributable cause of 50% cancers in India and majority of lung or heart diseases."