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India's Tobacco Industry, Farmers Resist Warnings on Cigarettes

  • Anjana Pasricha

Smoking kills an estimated one million people in India every year. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

Smoking kills an estimated one million people in India every year. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

India's tobacco industry and tobacco growers are resisting new government rules requiring cigarette manufacturers to print huge pictorial warnings on cigarette packages, saying the stringent measures will impact the livelihood of more than 45 million farmers and lead to an increase in the sale of illegal cigarettes.

In a country where about 1 million deaths every year are blamed on tobacco consumption, the government has ordered that 85 percent of both the front and the back of a cigarette pack be covered with graphic images, such as diseased lungs, to discourage smoking.

Current law requires 40 percent of only the front of the package carry such warnings.

Warnings presently cover 40 percent of the front of a cigarette pack (A. Pasricha/VOA)

Warnings presently cover 40 percent of the front of a cigarette pack (A. Pasricha/VOA)

India's Supreme Court earlier this week turned down a plea to halt implementation of the new rules, which were introduced April 1. The court ordered tobacco companies to comply with the new government rule, which would put India among the countries where cigarette packs carry the most graphic warnings.

The court also directed a lower court to hear more than 25 petitions filed by big tobacco companies in different courts challenging the new guidelines.

Industry, farmers

That has given a ray of hope to the industry and to farmers fighting the new guidelines.

A day after the Supreme Court order, the Tobacco Institute of India, which represents large companies such as ITC and Godfrey Philips, put massive advertisements in newspapers saying pictorial warnings have been struck down in the U.S. and that current warnings, such as the words "Smoking Kills," are adequate.

They said the stricter warnings will lead to an increase in the sale of illegal cigarettes, smuggled in from countries that do not mandate such strict warnings.

Tens of thousands of retailers and farmers are also protesting the new rules, worried about the impact of more stringent warnings on sales of tobacco products.

The latest effort to curb tobacco consumption comes on top of other measures in the past year such as an increase in taxes on tobacco products.

Last month the Indian capital also banned the sale of chewable tobacco, which contributes to oral cancer.

Retailers and tobacco growers are also protesting the new rules, worried about impact on sales. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

Retailers and tobacco growers are also protesting the new rules, worried about impact on sales. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

Options for farmers

Chengal Reddy, head of the Federation of Farmers Association, told VOA that farmers were not opposed to reducing tobacco cultivation but need help with options.

"As a farmer, I am not in a position to do research and go into policy issues. It is the responsibility of the government. When they say a crop is bad, they should show me alternatives," Reddy said.

India is among the world's top tobacco producers with the sturdy crop being grown widely in several states, including Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Farmers are threatening to escalate their protests.

"We will not accept this judgement," Reddy said.

However, health activists, who have long pushed for the stricter warnings, said they are happy with the ruling.

A group of workers relax and smoke during a midday break. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

A group of workers relax and smoke during a midday break. (A. Pasricha/VOA)

Discourage consumption

In a country where half the population is under 25, and where a substantial number is illiterate, the new rules will deter many from getting addicted to smoking, health activists said.

"Evidence shows that graphic warnings are much more effective than nongraphic, especially if you talk about the youth. These warnings are really for the initiates, the new people who are trying it out, that is where they are the most effective," said Sanjay Seth, a consultant at Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health.

In efforts to discourage tobacco consumption, India has banned advertisements of tobacco products and outlawed smoking in public – although that is seldom heeded.

Tobacco-related diseases cost India about $22 billion in 2011, according to a World Health Organization study.

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