Following controversial remarks by BJP MPs on the issue of pictorial warnings on tobacco packets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday asked Health Minister J P Nadda to appoint a high-level committee to study the issue and submit a report at the earliest.
Meanwhile, three BJP MPs, who were on the parliamentary panel that recommended keeping bigger warnings on hold, voiced their dissent, saying that bigger warnings were, in fact, required.
The panel had recommended to the Health Ministry that the decision on increasing pictorial warning on tobacco packets from 40 per cent to 85 per cent be kept in abeyance. Dilip Gandhi, chairman of the Parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation, had said that no studies had been conducted in India to prove any link between smoking and cancer. Another MP and member of the committee S C Gupta, who owns a bidi business, had written to the committee saying bidis have very little tobacco and are, therefore, not harmful.
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Modi called Nadda during the lunch break on the opening day of the BJP’s national executive and asked him to explain the background of the controversy. Sources said Nadda made a brief presentation and summarised the issue. Modi then asked Nadda to appoint a high-level committee that would make recommendations for the government to act on.
Meanwhile, voicing disagreement with the panel’s view, BJP MP Chandulal Sahu said, “Former health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had brought the notification increasing the size of the pictorial warning from 40 per cent to 85 per cent. I had been in favour of that but they said they would take a call after talking to some experts. There is no doubt that tobacco is harmful.”
BJD MP Jhina Hakaka said, “Tobacco is harmful and 85 per cent warnings should be given the go-ahead.”
P P Chaudhry, BJP MP from Rajasthan, said, “In my opinion, not only should there be bigger warnings but tobacco should be banned. But the committee has to decide on the basis of evidence, not my personal opinion. If the evidence shows that bigger warnings are not needed, we have to take that call,” Chaudhry said.
However, many who were on the panel still continued to echo Gandhi and Gupta’s stand.
“Forty per cent pictorial warnings are enough. There are more than four lakh workers who depend on this. There is no reason to increase the size. The decision of the committee was unanimous,” BJP MP from Assam Ram Prasad Sarmah said.
Birendra Kumar Chaudhry, BJP MP from Bihar, said, “There is no doubt tobacco is harmful. But is is also true that there are cancer patients who have never consumed it in their lives. I think 40 per cent warning is enough, I do not want poor workers to lose their livelihood.”
BJP MP Narendra Keshav Sawaikar said, “The deliberations of the committee are still on. It is an ongoing process, nothing has been finalised yet.”
The committee is due to meet again on April 6.
Recommendations of the committee are not binding on the Health Ministry, former MoS (health) Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress explained. “Only the health minister, not even the ministry, has the authority to keep the earlier notification in abeyance. The committee has no power because this was done under a law that was passed unanimously by the Parliament,” he said.
Congress MP Sushmita Deb said, “This government has been talking about promoting yoga and when it comes to smoking, it just did a somersault.” The Congress also pushed for the removal of Gupta from the Parliamentary panel.
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