Show health warnings work, says Indian panel

Ministry asked to prove that larger warnings on cigarette packs can cut tobacco use

NEW DELHI • A parliamentary panel in India reviewing whether to put larger health warnings on cigarette packets has asked the health ministry for evidence to show that such a move would cut tobacco consumption.

The panel, which has been criticised before by tobacco control activists for apparent conflict of interest because one of its members owns a tobacco business, sent a list of 32 questions to the federal ministry in October.

It asked the ministry to explain which ingredients in tobacco cause cancer and whether previous government surveys showed that graphic warnings led to a drop in tobacco use, which is linked to as many as 900,000 deaths a year in India, the world's second-largest tobacco producer.

Some questions cited concerns that larger warnings can hurt tobacco farmers and boost illicit trade. That surprised officials as they appeared to toe the industry line, ministry sources said.

One federal health official said they thought the questions were "almost identical to objections raised by the industry".

"The panel is playing into the tobacco industry's ploy," said Mr Shailesh Vaite, a member of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control, a group of more than 350 global organisations.

Panel chairman Dilip Gandhi denied the panel had been influenced by the tobacco industry, and said it expects to have a report on its findings within 45 days.

The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) - which represents hundreds of local manufacturers in India's US$6 billion (S$8.6 billion) cigarette market as well as bigger firms - said it held talks with the parliamentary panel in July.

"Regulatory impositions adversely impact the livelihood of farmers, the legal cigarette business," said Mr Syed Mahmood Ahmad, director of the TII. The group has previously said bigger packaging warnings are "unreasonable" and "impractical".

The health ministry first proposed in October 2014 that 85 per cent of a cigarette packet's surface area should carry health warnings, up from 20 per cent. That was opposed by the tobacco industry and put on hold after the parliamentary panel said it needed to analyse the impact on the industry.

The move has also been challenged in courts.

The government has put the number of Indians using tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, at around 275 million, and the TII estimates the industry provides a living for 45.7 million people. Such communication between the parliamentary panel and the health ministry risks further delaying the measures, activists and health ministry officials said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'Show health warnings work, says Indian panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe