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Widows back tobacco battle

New Delhi, March 29: Five women who lost their husbands to tobacco-linked cancers have joined a chorus of voices urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to implement its promise to expand pictorial warnings to cover 85 per cent of tobacco packets from April 1.

The women have urged Modi and Union health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda to "stand against the powerful tobacco lobby" and implement the 85 per cent warnings, echoing demands made by health activists and a group of 653 doctors from across India last week.

The clamour for the expanded pictorial warnings comes against the backdrop of recommendations earlier this month from a parliamentary panel that has asked the government to expand pictorial warnings from the current 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the surface area of tobacco packets.

The parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation had cited jobs and revenue generated by the tobacco sector to argue that the proposed 85 per cent sized warnings would "hammer a death knell for the beedi industry and millions of people would become jobless."

"We were aghast to (learn) that the panel has given more importance to loss of livelihood than loss of lives," Sumitra Pednekar, wife of Maharashtra's former home and labour minister Satish Pednekar, wrote in a joint letter sent to the Prime Minister and the health minister.

The other women are based in Bhopal, Dehradun, New Delhi and Vidisha.

"It is disgusting that the tobacco lobby continues to influence tobacco control policy for amassing vulgar profits," Sumitra wrote, citing research studies that suggest pictorial warnings can discourage initiation and promote cessation of tobacco. Her husband, who consumed chewing tobacco, died in 2011 from oral cancer.

However, many smokers believe pictorial warnings do not in any way draw tobacco-users away from the habit.

Former health minister Harsh Vardhan had announced his ministry's intention to introduce the 85 per cent pictorial warnings on tobacco packets from April 2015, but deferred it after interim observations by the parliamentary panel last year asking the government to place the proposal on hold.

The panel's fresh recommendations this year have angered health activists campaigning for stronger warnings.

A group of 653 doctors cutting across specialities had also last week written to Modi, urging him to "step in and prevent the powerful tobacco lobby from subverting anti-tobacco measures of the government."

The letter signed by several oncologists, among other specialists, recalled Modi's message posted on Facebook on May 31, 2014: "Let's pledge to spread awareness on the risks of tobacco consumption and work to reduce tobacco consumption in India."

"The Facebook message of the Prime Minister shows his personal commitment for this important public health issue," said Pankaj Chaturvedi, a surgeon oncologist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai.

"Medical evidence has proven beyond doubt that tobacco is the only consumer product that has no good use except causing disease."

"It is unfortunate that the parliamentary panel is putting pressure to delay and dilute the notification for the pictorial warning," said Prakash Gupta, a cancer epidemiologist in Mumbai. "It seems to be less bothered about devastation caused by tobacco but highly concerned about the well being of the tobacco industry."


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