Updated: July 10, 2015 12:56:34 am
If the government needed another reason to increase taxes on tobacco products and mandate bigger health warnings on cigarette packs, it got two in as many days. On Wednesday, the Rajasthan High Court directed the Central and state governments to immediately implement the rules under the anti-tobacco law, which require pictorial warnings that cover 85 per cent of the display area of tobacco packets. Tuesday saw the WHO explicitly call on Indian authorities to increase and simplify the tax on tobacco to discourage smoking in its annual Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic. According to the WHO, tobacco products in India have actually become more affordable in real terms between 2008 and 2014, and its complex tax structures afford manufacturers loopholes to exploit.
There is understandable concern that India’s efforts at reducing tobacco use have flagged in recent times, with a dispute over the Union health ministry’s October 2014 decision to increase the size of pictorial warnings. Recently, the parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation — which includes a bidi baron — decided not just to examine the notification, but also direct the health ministry to set up a medical board to study the health effects of tobacco use on an Indian population. Committee chairman and BJP MP Dilip Gandhi raised the spectre of a foreign bias in all the existing medical literature that extensively details the pernicious effects of tobacco use on the human body and public health systems. After successfully arm-twisting the health ministry, the panel hasn’t thought it fit to take up the matter since.
Contrary to what Gandhi and his bidi baron colleague say, a wealth of research has unequivocally established that exposure to tobacco — even for Indians — causes death, disease and disability. Their irresponsible recommendation that the health ministry delay potentially life-saving interventions because of a dangerous and unscientific suspicion of “foreign” medicine is actively harmful. Raising tobacco taxes is the most effective strategy to reduce tobacco use. It is proven to cause tobacco users to quit — for instance, the Philippines saw a large decline in overall smoking in 2014, after the government enacted a law that increased taxes on tobacco by up to 820 per cent. As for graphic pictorial warnings, they too have been proven effective — the larger and scarier, the better. In Brazil, where cigarette packs and other tobacco products must carry health warnings containing colour pictures covering 100 per cent of one face of the pack, the smoking rate has recorded a dramatic drop. More than eight lakh Indians die of tobacco-related diseases each year. The government must not tarry any longer.
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