Even as Woody Allen opposes the use of Government’s anti-tobacco campaign disclaimers in his film, Nandita Murukutla of World Lung Foundation, the campaign collaborator, tells us that it is an important effort in a country that has millions of tobacco users

It’s not often that Woody Allen’s actions have a direct relation to India and its laws. The celebrated name from Hollywood, opposing the Government’s anti-tobacco campaign requirements related to the screening of his Blue Jasmine in India, has decided to skip it with his latest rollout. Living in a country that has 206 million adult tobacco users (as per Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2009), many of whom have fallen victim to killer diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart failure, you know you can let Allen’s movie go even if he is a damn good actor-director. Nandita Murukutla, Country Director, (Global) Research and Evaluation, World Lung Foundation, states, “The Film Ruling under Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), which restricts the portrayal of tobacco in cinema and television programming, and includes anti-tobacco messages and warnings, is an important effort, particularly in sending the right message to our youth whom the tobacco industry often gives the idea of cigarette as a glamorous and aspirational product.”

World Lung Foundation, along with Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been collaborating with the Government in the campaign titled “Heartbreak” run since 2011. For the first time in India, the campaign, through the popular public interest announcement “Mukesh” along with a clutch of other PSAs, was graphic in informing public about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.

The Rs. 8 crore worth campaign, run on radio and TV channels and in cinema halls, has recently entered its second phase, “Tears You Apart”. Murukutla, in an email interview, says, “The new PSAs in the second phase have the same approach but takes a step further by including comments from relatives on how this addiction destroyed the patients’ career, family life and became a financial burden.” The PSAs, filmed in B. Barooah Cancer Institute, Guwahati, and Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, began airing on Doordarshan and AIR in May this year and has recently started on all private TV and radio channels. Excerpts from the interview:

What would you count as the achievements of the campaign?

We have come a long way but there is still a way to go. India faces a particular challenge in its large population size and in the variety (smokeless, smoking) of tobacco products consumed. These campaigns, firstly, presented tobacco as a harmful habit with serious health effects, thus countering the tobacco industry’s false portrayal of tobacco as a glamorous and innocuous substance. Second, they highlighted the connection between tobacco and the looming tide of non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, that will hit Indians in their productive years in the near future, as per the WHO projections. These deaths are largely attributable to tobacco use and are preventable. Campaigns like ‘Heartbreak’ vividly portray this connection.

Finally, though our campaign, we portray the manifold sufferings that result from tobacco use, including the emotional heartbreak of families, the physical and financial hardships borne by victims and families. Our ultimate achievement will be the reduction in prevalence of tobacco use, which we expect to find in surveys, particularly the next round of the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (anticipated in 2015). Until then, continued education and efforts to counter the use of tobacco are critical.

How are the PSAs ideated?

The PSAs tell the true story. We know from extensive research done with Indian adults, including in rural areas and among the lowest SEC groups, that this reality is a powerful deterrent against tobacco and a strong motivator to quit. Smokeless tobacco consumption is often linked to poverty. In ‘Tears You Apart’, the son of a female victim of tobacco describes the financial hardship that they also suffered as a consequence of her cancer. Most tobacco users in India are from the lower socio-economic groups and predominantly reside in rural areas. Their economic hardships are further exacerbated by tobacco. Besides the income that is spent on maintaining the addictive substance, tobacco use creates illnesses that result in reduced productivity and loss of income coupled with increased health care expenditure. Thus, tobacco use creates a vicious cycle of ill-health and poverty for the individual and the families.

What restrictions should the Government put on the tobacco industry?

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the international treaty for tobacco control that India has ratified, outlines a number of interventions for curtailing the demand and supply of tobacco. Many of these are also present in COTPA. We know from decades of research and practice that the single most effective policy intervention is taxation. By increasing the price of tobacco products, consumption is significantly lowered, particularly in the most vulnerable populations. Yet in India, tobacco taxes are very low. The World Bank recommends that taxes should account for about 65 per cent to 80 per cent of retail price. In India, taxes account for only approximately 38 per cent of cigarette prices and 9 per cent of bidi prices. Tobacco is, therefore, highly affordable. The Government must extend and strengthen the tax policy. Under COTPA and FCTC, tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is banned. Yet this regulation is not properly implemented.

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