Health activists campaigning against the tobacco industry are concerned at its continuing defiance of the Indian tobacco control laws. Even though the government mandates a prominent display of mouth cancer warnings on all tobacco product packages from this past December 1, old weak warnings continue to be on the packs.

“The tobacco industry's claims that by stalling production it incurs a loss of Rs.100 crore per day, but that does not compare with Rs.7,920 crore per year that the government will save on health care costs for treating tobacco-related diseases as projected by the 2004 National Sample Survey in a study published in Tobacco Control Journal in 2009,” says Public Health Foundation of India president Dr. K. Srinath Reddy.

With effective tobacco control measures the Union Government will also protect several thousand tobacco users from dying every day, he adds. “With mounting inflation, the health care figures are bound to nearly double, making it imperative for the government to promote public health by ensuring that new warnings are enforced efficiently and effectively.”

“The economic losses being projected by the cigarette industry pale into insignificance when you consider potential health and economic gains of reduced tobacco consumption. Even the immediate loss of direct revenue to the government will be offset by the fact that the discretionary income that smokers would have otherwise spent on cigarettes would flow into spending on other products which are also taxable and likely to be healthier,” says Dr. Reddy.

Tobacco control organisations across India are displeased at the tobacco industry's unpreparedness in supplying tobacco product packages with the mandated mouth cancer warnings despite the six-month deferral.

A survey of retail outlets across the Capital conducted by civil society representatives from December 1 revealed that all tobacco product brands still display the old health warnings.

“In the Supreme Court hearing on November 12, 2010, in the pack warnings PIL, the tobacco industry did show its consent to implement the revised warning i.e. mouth cancer, and said they are ready to abide by the law,” says Dr. Monika Arora, senior director of HRIDAY, a non-government organisation working for tobacco control.

“They did not raise any issue about existing stocks that have been manufactured with old warnings. They were aware that on December 1 all vendors would have to stock tobacco product packages with the notified mouth cancer warnings. Any argument suggesting that they are waiting to clear the stockpiles is baseless, especially in light of the fact that earlier public notice issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare undoubtedly stated that not just product packages manufactured from the enforcement date but also those sold from that date had to display the notified warnings,” she says.

Violation of Section 7 is punishable under Section 20 of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003. Any violation of this provision by producers or manufacturers is a punishable offence with imprisonment which may extend up to two years or with a fine which may extend to Rs.5,000, or with both, and for the second or subsequent conviction, with imprisonment for a term which may extend up to five years and with fine which may extend to Rs.10,000.

HRIDAY legal officer Deepti Singh says: “Non-compliance of this provision of the Indian tobacco control law is a serious offence and can attract heavy fine and imprisonment. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers need to be made aware of these penalties. HRIDAY has lodged a complaint regarding these violations with the National Tobacco Control Helpline. Ironically, retailers are unaware of any such change in pictorial health warnings on tobacco packages but are looking forward to the attractive packs with season's greetings for Christmas and New Year.”

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