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Tobacco plea in SC today

The Supreme Court will tomorrow hear a plea urging the government to implement its stalled plan to enlarge the pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products.

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 6.04.15
People light a bonfire of tobacco products in Surat. (PTI)

New Delhi, April 5: The Supreme Court will tomorrow hear a plea urging the government to implement its stalled plan to enlarge the pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products.

A Lok Sabha panel that included a BJP member who owns a beedi company had recently asked the health ministry to keep the plan in abeyance.

Health for the Millions Trust, an NGO, has approached the apex court to force the government to expand the size of the warnings to 85 per cent of tobacco packets' surface area from the current 40 per cent, and to ban the sale of loose cigarettes.

The hearing comes at a time two of the Lok Sabha panel's members have questioned the link between tobacco and cancer, outraging health experts.

"In 2015, the claim that tobacco has no link with cancer is as anti-science as saying the earth is flat or that the sun revolves round the earth," said K. Srinath Reddy, senior cardiologist and president of the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private research and education institution in New Delhi.

Dilip Gandhi, the panel chairperson and BJP member from Ahmednagar, and Shyama Charan Gupta, the Allahabad MP with beedi industry links, claim there is no evidence from India linking tobacco with cancer.

Gupta had this week told The Telegraph he knew many tobacco users who had not developed cancer.

Anti-tobacco activists accuse the Lok Sabha panel of ignoring the recommendations a Rajya Sabha committee had issued two years ago.

The upper House committee had asked the health ministry to "strengthen rules relating to trade (statutory warnings) by prescribing stronger, effective and field-tested pictorial health warnings covering at least 90 per cent of the principal display area of tobacco products".

Health experts say the Lok Sabha panel seems to also have ignored scientific evidence --- from a Harvard study two years ago --- that graphic warnings can reduce the demand for tobacco and curb the risk of not just cancer but also other lung and heart diseases.

"To stall (pictorial health warnings) on specious grounds," Reddy said, "is a disservice to the poor who consume tobacco most frequently and have low levels of education and health literacy."

Health activists say their plea to ban the sale of loose cigarettes is tied to their campaign for larger pictorial warnings.

"What's the use of graphic warnings when retailers sell loose cigarettes or beedis?" said Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, executive director of the Voluntary Health Association of India, an NGO associated with Health for the Millions Trust.

Before the plan for larger warnings was announced last October, the health ministry had through the World Health Organisation field-tested tobacco warnings that covered only 65 to 70 per cent of the display area.

So, then health minister Harsh Vardhan's announcement of a figure of 85 per cent last October caught many health officials and anti-tobacco activists by surprise, two sources who requested not to be named said.

"The primary concern was the fear of industry backlash. The Sri Lanka government had a few years ago proposed 85-per-cent-size health warnings but had to scale them down after the tobacco industry moved court," one of the sources said. "Here, the industry view appears to have support from some MPs."

Asked about the stand taken by Gandhi and Gupta, Harsh Vardhan was today quoted by PTI as saying: "I can only say --- as an ENT surgeon, as a former health minister, as a doctor ---- that tobacco produces death and nothing less than that."

Should MPs faced with a conflict of interest stay on the House panel, he was asked. Harsh Vardhan, now science and technology minister, said: "I think this is quite natural; why should anybody who has a conflict of interest be commenting on a subject?"

The news agency later quoted Gupta as saying: "I have not received any instructions (to step down). Whatever the party leadership decides, I will abide by it."

One of those to protest Gandhi's de-linking of cancer and tobacco was Sunita Tomar, 28, who became the face of the Centre's anti-tobacco campaign last year after being diagnosed with cancer.

Days before she died on Wednesday in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, she had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "I was shocked that people in such high posts (Gandhi) can be so irresponsible. Bigger warnings can probably save some innocent lives like mine."

She had added: "You have started to take people along in your Mann Ki Baat (radio programme) where you recently talked about de-addiction. I hope you will also take up the cause of tobacco."

Her husband Brijendra said the Centre had not given her any money for treatment while adding that the family had not asked for any, PTI reported.

Brijendra, a driver, said he had unpaid debts of Rs 3.5 lakh, taken to fund his wife's treatment, and was struggling to bring up sons Dhruv, 13, and Gandharv, 10.