One million tobacco deaths in India every year, yet politicians in denial

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Apr 01, 2015 12:43 PM IST

If you are a tobacco user, the odds are stacked against you. Tobacco kills half of its users, with smoking and smokeless tobacco killing nearly 6 million people worldwide – one death every 6 seconds – each year, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

One million of the tobacco deaths occur in India, yet the Union health ministry has postponed its decision to introduce new graphic health warnings that cover 85% of tobacco packages on both sides beginning April 1 based on the decision of a Parliamentary Committee report that is chaired a BJP MP who wants Indian surveys to prove tobacco causes cancer before public health measures to reduce tobacco use are implemented.

The decision was based on the recommendation of a parliamentary committee headed by BJP Ahmednagar MP Dilip Kumar Gandhi, who said here were no studies out of India to show that tobacco use caused cancer and other diseases. Along with Karnataka and Andhra, Maharashtra is one of the major tobacco-growing states in India.

Currently, graphic photographs of oral and throat cancers will occupy 65% of tobacco packages — such as cigarette packs — while 15% of the surface will be used for text warnings.

The photos had been shortlisted for the new warnings last year have now been junked. The new warning labels -- with pictures of mouth and throat cancers- -were to cover all kinds of tobacco packages, including imported cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

The graphic picture were to cover 60% of the package, and the text warning will be 25%, the Union Ministry of health and Family Welfare had notified in October last year. The warnings were to be in English and/or the language the brand is sold under, said the notification issued on October 15, 2014.

The decision to increase the size of pack warning labels , along with increasing the legal age of buying and using tobacco, was part of India’s efforts to lower tobacco use.

Use and abuse

Despite bans on advertising, sale to minors and smoking in public places, more than one in three adults use some form of tobacco in India. India has one of the world’s weakest tobacco warning regimes. Currently, official cautions appear only on one side of the package, covering a mere 20% of the entire packet.

According to a 2014 report by the Canadian Cancer Society, India is ranked 136th among 198 countries listed according to the size of their health warnings. The country has slid from a ranking of 123 in 2012, with several countries implementing stronger warnings.

Other Asian countries are far ahead in this regard, with warnings covering 85% of the package on both sides in Thailand, 90% in Sri Lanka and 75% in Nepal.

Hard-hitting anti-tobacco advertisements and graphic pack warnings – especially those that include pictures – reduce the number of children who begin smoking and increase the number of smokers who quit, , with former smokers have the same health risks as non-smokers 15 years after quitting. Now that we all know, doing something with the information is the tough part.

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    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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