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But me no butts

- A move to scale down pictorial warnings on cigarette packets has set off alarm bells in some sectors. Health experts tell Sonia Sarkar that they fear a proposed law that seeks to curb the use of tobacco may also be diluted

NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE: Experts fear that the government may end up diluting the stringent Cotpa Bill, 2015

From April 1 this year, cigarette packets were going to be substantially different. A government notification last year had said that 85 per cent of a packet would be devoted to a pictorial health warning on the ill effects of smoking. But recently a parliamentary committee recommended that it be reduced to 50 per cent.

The proposal came from the Lok Sabha committee on subordinate legislation headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, Dilip Gandhi.

The development has caused a flutter in anti-tobacco circles in the country.  Does it mean the government is not serious about tackling tobacco use? What is the fate of a stringent bill that seeks to address the issue?

Indeed, there has been no recent movement on the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill, 2015, or the Cotpa Bill. After the bill was drafted a year ago, the Union health and family welfare ministry invited comments from stakeholders. The ministry received over 2,00,000 views but has not moved on the front, a source says.

“We have not received any directive from the health minister J.P. Nadda’s office. Copies of the comments are lying in sacks,” says a member of the National Tobacco Control Programme, a government initiative for tobacco control in India.
With experts linking the use of tobacco to health problems, the bill was drafted to check the high consumption of tobacco in India. According to the University of Melbourne, 275 million Indians use tobacco, leading to nearly one million deaths a year.  

The bill stipulates strong measures such as plain packaging of cigarettes — without a brand name — as has been done in Australia. A clause in the earlier bill, Cotpa 2003, allows branding or advertisement. “But the proposed bill has done away with the proviso,” the member says.

Plain packaging has led to a fall in smoking in Australia. In 2014, the Australian government-sponsored National Drugs Strategy Household Survey showed that the smoking rate fell by 15 per cent between 2010 and 2013.
The new bill also proposes prohibition of advertisement of tobacco products in films, on the Internet and cell phones. The bill proposes a ban on on-site advertising of tobacco products and shops selling cigarettes and other tobacco products, which often have hoardings of brand names.

There has been pressure on successive Indian governments to bring in stringent law to deter tobacco use and follow the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organization in compliance with international standards of Tobacco control, which proposed the scrapping of designated smoking areas in hotels, restaurants and airports (barring international airports) to prevent exposure of non-smokers to harmful emissions.

Responding to a global movement against tobacco, the would-be law spells out stringent punishments. “The penalty for smoking in restricted areas has been raised from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000. Anyone found manufacturing tobacco products without the specified warning will be liable for imprisonment for up to two years or fine up to Rs 50,000 or both on their first offence. For the second and subsequent offences, the imprisonment can be up to five years with a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh. This will be a big deterrent,” says advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had argued on behalf of Health for Millions Trust, a Delhi-based non government organisation which advocated the ban on the sale of gutkha and paan masala with tobacco in the Supreme Court in 2013.

The new bill also states that the tobacco products and cigarettes in approved packaging will now be sold only to those above 21 years of age as against 18. An earlier parliamentary standing committee on the Cotpa Bill had observed that if people were kept away from tobacco for the first 20 years of their life, there was high probability that they would always stay tobacco-free.

The new bill also proposes establishing a National Tobacco Control Organisation to implement and monitor the provisions of Cotpa. 

But public health experts say that the bill also has certain grey areas which need to be addressed. “For example, the act should specifically mention that cinema halls, stadia, cantonments and shopping malls will be 100 per cent smoke-free. The amendments also do not take into account the growing threat of electronic cigarettes, which are easily available for sale through online portals,” says Monika Arora, associate professor, Public Health Foundation of India, an NGO on public health advocacy.

Activists fear that the bill may be diluted because of pressure from the tobacco industry. One of the controversial measures is the government’s attempt to ban the sale of loose cigarettes and other tobacco products. “Tobacco growers and tobacco product manufacturers have been raising objections to it,” Bhushan says.

The ban, the Federation of Karnataka Virginia Tobacco Growers Association says, will lead to “illegal, non tax-paid cigarettes or other cheaper types of tobacco consumption like bidis”. In a statement, it says: “We demand a more equitable and practical policy regime balancing the public health concerns with impact on livelihood of millions of farmers and workers and policies covering all forms of tobacco consumption without discrimination against cigarettes.”

Some believe the government may be sitting on the bill because of the concerns of tobacco growers, who say that more than 60 per cent of the total crop produce is used for making cigarettes. Such restrictions, they hold, will lead to huge financial losses. The government will also feel the pinch, for it earns around Rs 30,000 crore as excise duty on cigarettes.
Public health experts stress that there will be strong opposition from the tobacco industry because the measures will affect their turnover. “This silence on the part of the ministry clearly shows that even if the bill comes up, it will be diluted,” Bhushan says.

A ministry source says that the bill is being delayed because of the tobacco growers’ concerns. “They have sent us their opinions. We have to consider them before finalising the bill,” the official says. “We cannot rush.”

But others argue about the need to move fast. “The government should understand that they are not building a national highway that they will do it in phases,” says Alok Mukhopadhyay, chairman of the Voluntary Health Association of India. “They have to do it right away because we are losing lives every day.”


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