The government decision to increase pictorial warnings on tobacco packets from April 1, which earned India international acclaim, has been put on hold indefinitely.
This follows the recommendation of a committee of MPs which did not speak to health experts before making claims that fly in the face of established science on the ill-effects of tobacco on health.
The committee, chaired by Ahmednagar BJP MP Dilip Gandhi, only spoke to tobacco lobby representatives and MPs, including members of the committee, opposed to the decision. The 15-member committee, which includes eight from the BJP, made a case for the bidi industry.
On March 24, Gandhi told The Indian Express that no Indian study has established that tobacco causes cancer. “Whether it actually causes cancer or other diseases is subject to a study in the country. That has never happened. And the basis of our stance towards tobacco products are basically studies that have happened in a foreign setting,” he said.
Gandhi’s claim is far from the truth. Many studies in India, some of them sponsored and commissioned by the government, have established the deleterious health effects of tobacco.
♦ A Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) study, supported by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and World Health Organisation, estimated that total economic costs attributable to tobacco-use from all diseases in India in 2011 amounted to Rs 1,04,500 crores — 12% more than the combined state and central government expenditure on health care the same year.
♦ In a paper published in the journal Lancet Oncology in 2014, researchers from the Harvard Medical School linked tobacco use to 40% of all cancers in India. Tobacco-related diseases kills about 2,500 Indians daily and over 10 lakh Indians every year. It is estimated that about 5,500 youth and children, as young as 8 years old, initiate tobacco-use daily. India has 12 crore tobacco users, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2009-2010.
♦ Allahabad BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta, a member of the committee, claims that bidi has “nil” harmful effect. “Bidis are a natural product. It is very small compared to cigarettes and there is very little tobacco in each bidi, hence the harmful effects are nil as compared to cigarettes and chewing tobacco. There is no medical evidence that bidis cause cancer. Thus, the present size of pictorial warning i.e. 40% is sufficiently large and clear and conveys the message unambiguously. The new rule of 85% of horrific pictorial warning on bidi wrapper is unreasonable,” he wrote to the committee on November 13, 2014.
♦ The report of the committee on subordinate legislation, tabled in Parliament earlier this month, refers to the letter more than once, even though what Shyama Charan Gupta wrote is contrary to established scientific facts. P C Gupta, tobacco researcher and one of the authors of the tobacco control report brought out by the Health Ministry in 2004, said: “Bidi is killing 600,000 people annually in India. With nearly 85% of the world’s bidi tobacco grown in India and with 70% of tobacco smoked in the country being in the form of bidis, more Indians have now been found to be dying of bidi smoking than from all other forms of tobacco combined.”
♦ From the time the notification for larger packet warnings was brought out last October, the committee received representations from only the tobacco lobby, not those fighting tobacco use, including health experts. No health expert deposed before the committee which considered representations from the All India Bidi Industry Federation, Federation of Karnataka Virginia Tobacco Growers Association and “various people/organisations involved in the bidi/tobacco/cigarette manufacturing trade”. At least two MPs, who opposed the notification, were also its members — Shyama Charan Gupta and Nandi Yellaiah, Congress MP from Nagarkurnool in Telangana.
♦ Congress MP S P Muddahanumegowda from Tumkur in Karnataka said: “We need to hear more from the tobacco farmers, tobacco manufacturers and tobacco consumers. That is why we thought the notification should be kept in abeyance till we have heard all these people. It was a universal decision. One or two people did express concern about the condition of consumers but they were not displeased or anything of that sort,” he said. Asked whether the committee would talk to health experts, he said: “Yes, of course we will do that too. Right now, NGOs are saying tobacco causes cancer. We will talk to doctors. I will also insist that the committee visits some of the areas where tobacco is grown.”
♦ Idris Ali, Trinamool Congress MP who is a member of the committee, said: “I was not present at the last meeting of the committee. But I can tell you I certainly do not agree with the statement made by the chairman about lack of studies on cancer and tobacco. I believe there is enough evidence linking the two.”
♦ The committee’s stance on pictorial warnings is also in conflict with the report of the Rajya Sabha Committee on Subordinate Legislations, chaired by Maya Singh of BJP, which in its 2013 report had recommended increase in area of pictorial warning. “Ministry should expedite framing of rules pertaining to production and strengthen rules related to trade by promoting stronger, effective and field-tested pictorial health warnings covering at least 90% of the principal display area of tobacco packets,” the committee said.
♦ In a statement Tuesday, the Health Ministry said: “The committee on subordinate legislation has recommended that notification regarding increase of pictorial warning area should be kept in abeyance as all stakeholders have not been consulted yet. The ministry has to follow recommendations of the committee. There is no change in the ministry’s commitment to curb tobacco consumption in all possible forms.”
♦ Health Minister J P Nadda said: “The committee has asked for more time for deliberation. Till that time, the warning which was to come up on advertisements and on packets has been stayed. The Health Ministry, when it went to the committee, whatever we said, we are firm on that. We have pleaded that there is a necessity for this (warning).”
♦ Others in the government also do not share the committee view. “Do not listen to these things. Science is science. You cannot compromise on science,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said.
♦ Anti-tobacco activists slammed the government’s decision to defer larger pictorial warnings and Gandhi for questioning established scientific facts on the link between cancer and tobacco. Dr Harit Chaturvedi, surgical oncologist at Max Hospitals, said: “I do not know any other product that is sold over the counter and does the kind of damage that tobacco does. Saying that there is no evidence is to make a mockery of the entire scientific community.”