Recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Pictorial Warnings are Excessive

The recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation for 50% Pictorial Warnings on both sides of Cigarette Packaging constitute a 250% increase on the existing 40% warning on the front of the pack.

The recommendations of the Committee are excessive and do not appear to have cognized for the devastating consequences of large warnings on the livelihood of millions that are dependent on the Tobacco Industry.

In fact, the recommended warning size of 50% is much larger than the average of 20% among the top 5 tobacco producing countries (China, Brazil, USA, Malawi and Zimbabwe comprising around 90% of global tobacco production) and the global average warning size of 31%.

Moreover, the top three cigarette consuming countries, USA, China and Japan, between them accounting for 51% of global cigarette consumption have only text based warnings (about 30% in size) and have not adopted pictorial warnings.

Before the introduction of the 40% Pictorial Warnings in India in 2009, a Group of Ministers had examined, deliberated and consulted extensively on the issue of size of the warning and its consequences before making its recommendation. A change on the GOM recommended Warning appears to be directed at pleasing the anti-tobacco activists, many of whom are espousing the cause of vested interests. We understand that many of these activists are funded by organizations based in the US where surprisingly till date there is no pictorial warning.

Moreover, the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2009-10, conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, had found that within two years of the implementation of Pictorial Warnings in the country, more than 60% of tobacco consumers were already aware of the warnings. With another 6 years having elapsed since then, awareness levels on pictorial warnings are expected to be even higher.

The revision in the existing warning from 40% of the pack front to 50% of both sides of the pack, will adversely impact the already distressed Indian Cigarette Tobacco Farmers, further penalize the regulation compliant Legal Cigarette Industry and provide a huge boost to the large and growing illegal trade in cigarettes in the country.

Domestic cigarette tobacco farmers are already facing unprecedented hardships and a continuous drop in demand for their produce due to the shrinking domestic legal cigarette industry on account of high taxation and the growth of duty evaded illegal cigarettes that do not carry pictorial warnings, thereby creating the impression that they are safer for consumers.

The resulting loss in earnings of farmers and the acute financial distress faced by them has already led to many cases of suicides by farmers in the FCV (Cigarette) tobacco growing States of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.

According to a recent FICCI Study on Illicit Markets illegal cigarettes account for as much as 1/5th of the total Industry denying more than Rs. 9000 crore of revenue to the National Exchequer. The recommended 50% Warnings will provide a further fillip to the illegal trade in cigarettes.

In fact, in recent months there has been a sharp escalation in seizure of contraband cigarettes in the country by enforcement agencies which reveals the focus that contraband smugglers have brought to bear on India due to its extreme regulatory regime on the legal industry.

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 industry to cheaper, regulation non-compliant illegal options of suspect quality, thereby undermining public health objectives.

The existing warning on 40% of the front of the pack in India is adequate to inform and caution smokers. The large and gruesome warnings on 50% of both sides of the pack, are clearly anti-farmer and will result in penalizing the legal industry and further promote illegal cigarettes in the country.