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A picture worth thousand warnings
- Tobacco packs to carry graphic visuals with menacing messages
 

New Delhi, Dec. 5: The decades-old six-word statutory warning on Indian cigarette packs might soon give way to menacing messages and graphic pictures.

The government will notify stringent new norms for tobacco packaging and labelling to deliver bold warnings and pictorial messages that highlight the risks of smoking, health minister Anbumani Ramadoss said today.

Tobacco packaging will also display the proportion of harmful contents such as nicotine and tar, he said, inaugurating the fourth World Assembly on Tobacco Counters Health.

Indian doctors and anti-tobacco activists have long demanded that the statutory “Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to Health” be replaced with more effective warnings. A few developed by the health ministry include Tobacco Causes Heart Attack, Tobacco Causes Cancer, and Tobacco Kills.

Volunteers tested proposed messages on school and college students and found these to be the most effective. Others will be developed soon, and the risks of passive smoking will also be conveyed.

Experts suggest rotating messages on different packs, such as Smoking Kills, Tobacco is Addictive, Smoking Causes Heart Disease, Smoking Causes 85% of All Lung Cancer Deaths, and Smoking Harms Your Baby. They had once recommended skull-and-bones on packs.

While the health ministry had years ago agreed on the need for labelling changes, it had not issued orders. Anti-tobacco activists had put this down to differences within the government as tobacco is seen as an important industry and source of jobs. More important, it is a huge source of revenue for the government.

Citing community surveys, Ramadoss said India accounts for about 900,000 deaths each year from the use of tobacco. Medical expenses on tobacco-linked health problems alone account for Rs 30,800 crore. He said the new norms would be designed to curb smoking, especially among the youth.

Surveys in India have shown that cigarettes account for less than 10 per cent of tobacco consumption. About 45 per cent smoke beedis, and another 45 per cent consume tobacco in other forms. Tobacco consumption patterns demonstrate large-scale addiction among the younger population and that initiation into the habit takes place early.

Ramadoss also told the conference that the proposed ban on the display of tobacco products in movies and on television would come into effect from January 1. No character in a movie or a TV show can display tobacco products or their use, though certain exemptions will be made.

One exemption, for instance, is the portrayal of a real historical figure or the representation of a historical era. Live coverage of events will also be exempt from the new rules. However, it shall be mandatory for the film to include anti-tobacco messages at the beginning, middle and end of each film. In TV programmes, anti-tobacco health warnings will need to be shown as a prominent scroll at the bottom of the screen.

The World Health Organisation has said that by 2020, 70 per cent of deaths due to tobacco would occur in low- and middle-income groups, particularly in China and India.

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