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Trio stoke tobacco war of words

New Delhi, March 31: Three members of Parliament from Maharashtra, including a Union minister, have joined a war of words for and against a health ministry decision to keep in abeyance its proposal to expand pictorial warnings to cover 85 per cent of tobacco packets.

Environment and forests minister Prakash Javadekar and NCP MP Supriya Sule today appeared to align themselves with public health experts in decrying claims by BJP MP Dilip Gandhi that there is no evidence from India linking tobacco and cancer.

The health ministry last week decided to keep in abeyance its plan to expand pictorial warnings on tobacco packets from the current 40 to 85 per cent of surface area from April 1 after Gandhi asked the ministry to consider the implications of the expanded warnings on the tobacco industry and its workers.

Gandhi, who chairs a parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation, has also argued that studies that have linked tobacco with cancer have been done outside India and not on the Indian population.

Javadekar, who faced questions about Gandhi's statement at a news conference today, was quoted by PTI as saying: "Do not listen to these things. You cannot compromise on science." He added: "Science is science."

The hold on the warnings has triggered reactions of dismay from sections of public health experts who say the government has buckled under the influence of tobacco interest groups and launched a campaign urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to step in and implement the expanded warnings.

"It is disheartening to see that the government has decided to delay its earlier decision of having bigger and stronger warnings," Sule, the NCP MP from Pune, said in a statement issued today through a network of non-government public health organisations.

Sule said research studies establishing links between the consumption of tobacco and cancer, including data from within India, are in the public domain. "It is very shameful - he (Gandhi) is ill-informed," Sule told The Telegraph over the telephone.

Gandhi, who had written a letter to the health ministry, said the tobacco industry in India employs over 13 million people in the manufacture of bidis. He said the parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation is examining the financial and other implications of expanded pictorial warnings.

"I agree tobacco is harmful - I am not questioning that," Gandhi told this newspaper over the phone today. "But India has a population of 1.25 billion, we have many states. The studies on tobacco and cancer have been done mainly outside India. We have not asked the health ministry not to expand the pictorial warnings - only to hold that decision until we have fully examined all aspects."

Former health minister Harsh Vardhan had in October 2014 announced the plan to expand pictorial warnings to 85 per cent of the surface area of tobacco packets. Public health specialists say the larger warnings would serve as a stronger deterrent to curb tobacco consumption.

"Graphic pictorial warnings are an effective way to communicate harms to those with poor literacy status," said Monika Arora, associate professor and director of health promotion at the New Delhi-based Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private research and education institution.


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