Overlooking the serious concerns expressed by the stakeholders of the tobacco industry on excessive pictorial warnings on tobacco packs, the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare notified an increase in the size of the warnings from 40% on front of the packs to 85% on both sides with effect from April 1, 2016.
This is notwithstanding the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation, which reviewed the matter in consultation with all the stakeholders, finding the 85% requirement as excessive and recommending the warning size to be 50%.
India has taken an extreme and excessive position on pictorial warnings despite the fact that it is the 2nd largest tobacco growing country in the world. In, fact, the top 5 tobacco growing countries excluding India, have taken a more balanced approach with none of them having extremely large pictorial warnings such as the one prescribed in India at 85% on both sides of tobacco product packs .
Moreover, the top three cigarette consuming countries, the USA, China and Japan, between them accounting for 51% of global cigarette consumption have only text based warnings and have not adopted pictorial warnings. In fact, proposals on pictorial warnings were struck down in the USA as factually wrong and misleading.
Tobacco Control Policies in India are based on the Western Model driven by international anti-tobacco activists and health bodies which ignore the unique pattern of tobacco consumption in India and do not take into account the reality of 45.7 million livelihoods dependent on tobacco in the country.
The 85% warning is excessively large and is adversely impacting the already distressed Indian Tobacco Farmers, further penalizing the regulation compliant Legal Cigarette Industry and providing a huge boost to the large and growing illegal trade in cigarettes in the country.
According to Euromonitor International – a well-respected global research organization – India is now the 4th largest illegal cigarette market in the World. Based on the current tax rates on cigarettes, it is estimated that the Government loses Rs. 13,000 crores per annum on account of illegal cigarette trade.
A dangerous outcome of the increasing illegal trade is that it encourages the entry of organized criminal and terrorist syndicates, which could have serious consequences for the maintenance of law and order in the country. Internationally it has been reported, for example recently by The US Department of Homeland Security, that illegal profits from cigarette smuggling have been used to fund criminal activities.
Since smuggled cigarettes do not use local tobaccos, illegal trade impacts the livelihood of tobacco farmers in the country as demand for domestic tobaccos reduces.
The sharp and unprecedented fall in Legal Cigarette volumes on account of the growth in illegal cigarettes is a major blow to the livelihood of lakhs of Flue Cured Virginia (Cigarette) tobacco farmers, who have been facing unprecedented hardships due to a continuous drop in demand for their produce due to the shrinking domestic legal cigarette industry. The resulting loss in earnings of farmers and the acute financial distress faced by them has even led to unfortunate cases of suicides by farmers in the tobacco growing States of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka in 2016. With the increase in the size of pictorial warnings to 85% and the continuing drop in legal cigarettes, the plight of cigarette tobacco farmers has only worsened with devastating effect on their livelihood.
Historically, it has been seen that extreme regulations produce counter-productive results. They do not reduce demand for tobacco, but merely shift it from the legal segment to cheaper, regulation non-compliant illegal options of suspect quality, thereby undermining public health objectives.
The 85% pictorial warning on both sides of the pack, directed at creating shock and evoke emotion among consumers, are clearly anti-farmer and are resulting in penalizing the legal industry and further promoting illegal cigarettes in the country.