SC ruling on pictorial warnings: Would you still go for a puff after looking at this?

The Supreme Court has on Wednesday directed tobacco manufacturers to immediately comply with the central government’s regulation on increasing the size of health warnings to 85 per cent of the principal display area on packets. With this, India comes in line with its neighbours Pakistan Sri Lanka and Thailand and Pakistan who follow the same graphic warnings on cigarette packs.

Pictorial design on cigarette packets. AFP

Pictorial design on cigarette packets. AFP

The SC order comes amid growing conflict between the government and tobacco industry. The industry had sought to delay rules from April 1  which requires 85 percent of a cigarette pack's surface to be covered in health warnings, up from 20 percent.

The specified health warning will cover at least 85 percent of the principal display area of the package of which 60 per cent will be pictorial warning and twenty-five percent textual warning. All these will be positioned on the top edge of the package and in the same direction as the information on the principal display area.

A PIL filed by 66 year-old Umesh Narain Sharma, claimed that smoking was responsible for over 10 lakh deaths every year in India. According to the PIL,  Sharma, an oral cancer patient, had to remove part of his tongue to prevent spread of the cancer in 2011.

Sharma wanted the government to take tough action on cigarette makers.

The WHO believes pictorial warnings are important in developing countries where rates of illiteracy are higher. If the cigarette making industry can make use of images to promote the product, then it cannot object to health departments to discourage tobacco use, it argued.

Consumer reaction

Consumers had mixed reactions to the SC ruling. "I don't look at the picture on the cigarette pack when I buy it," said Apeksha Kalluri, a 26 year-old techie working in Mumbai. She has been smoking since she was 19. "I have seen the warning label on the cigarette pack but I don't pay any attention to it," she says. Kalluri smokes five cigarettes a day. As a young collegians, she wanted to smoke with friends to have that experience. "It was not peer pressure. I wanted to try it out as my friends were smoking," she says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Later, Kalluri says when she went abroad to study further, she found a cigarette was a good antidote in the severe winters. A cigarette also proved to be a familiar and reassuring habit, she says, when alone in a new country. "I spoke to the first person in college, who later became a friend, when we were both out of class and were smoking in a common area," she says, adding that perhaps she would have met the individual even without sharing a space for a smoke. "But a cigarette made that easier," she says.

India fares badly

Tobacco is the leading cause of cancer deaths in India. The country has nearly 274.9 million tobacco users. Of these, nearly 26 percent of them use smokeless tobacco, six percent are cigarette smokers, and nine percent smoke bidi, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS).

The Supreme Court directive will be able to help smokers in general, more so first time smokers, believe health professionals. "It will deter youngsters and first-time smokers from forming a habit that has grave health consequences," said Dr Smita N Deshpande, head, department of psychiatry and drug de-addiction at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Delhi. "Especially youngsters who want to try their first cigarette will be discouraged when they look at the gross pictures on the cigarette pack," believes Deshpande.

Ram Manohar Lohia hospital had a tobacco control centre for four years, but later it was integrated with psychiatric services due to lack of personnel to run it.

Adman Piyush Pandey, though, is emphatic that pictorial warnings will not work. He said that irrespective of gross images on cigarette pack, "whoever wants to smoke will smoke."

Agreeing with Pandey is Gautam More, professor, K J Somaiya College of Buddhist studies, who said that a warning on a cigarette packet or putting up gross pictures will have no impact as he believes these serve to only promote fear in the consumer. "Who is afraid of anything? Don't people who indulge in substance abuse not know about its consequences? Everyone is out to try what they want to, even when they know it is life threatening. When you are young, it is a matter of defiance. So, I don't think any such measures will help people stop smoking or any other kind of addiction."

However, Dr Altaf Patel, Director, Medicine at Jaslok Hospital is of the opinion that even if one percent of the public is discouraged to smoke because of the graphic pictures on the packets, it would serve the cause that SC has championed with the order. "A one percent impact is huge when you consider healthcare spend with regard to tobacco," he said.



Updated Date: May 06, 2016 00:36 AM

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