OTT services, govt. reach uneasy compromise on smoking warnings

Weeks past the deadline, OTT streaming services have settled on introducing smoking warnings, with some choosing more intrusive messaging.

Updated - October 20, 2023 05:11 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2023 03:08 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Image used for representational purpose only.

Image used for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: AP

Over-the-top (OTT) streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video reached an uneasy compromise with the Union government on adding smoking warnings to their content, according to minutes of a meeting with the industry obtained by The Hindu, and a review of smoking warnings on different platforms. 

Some streaming services such as Hotstar have added video and on-screen warnings for even older films, while others such as Netflix have chosen less intrusive warnings, with a message warning against tobacco consumption on the top left of the screen at the beginning of content with smoking.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had on May 31 notified the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Rules, 2023, which required streaming services to interrupt programming with tobacco consumption in the middle of each film or episode, and display a warning at the beginning, on top of text scrolls on each shot containing smoking.

No other country has required filmmakers and TV series makers to interrupt their own content this way, and the Health Ministry was aware of this, according to file notings also accessed by The Hindu. After the then Health Secretary asked a consultant at the Ministry if there was precedent for such proposals in other countries, the consultant replied in the negative, framing the proposal instead as a way for India to be the “global leader” in such messaging, according to records provided to The Hindu by the Ministry. 

With freedom of expression and cost concerns in hand, the OTT industry sat down with officials from the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on August 28. Officials from the latter had been surprised by the former’s notification, one streaming executive told The Hindu

‘Strong measures needed’

The meeting, which took place in the Health Ministry, opened with a presentation by Pankaj Chaturvedi, the Deputy Director of Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital. Dr. Chaturvedi argued that ‘strong measures’ were needed to curb tobacco consumption. Pulkesh Kumar, a Health Ministry official, was described as saying that “use of tobacco products, both smoking and smokeless, have been rampantly depicted and promoted in OTT platforms”. 

OTT services then pleaded for relaxations in the text of the rules and the timelines provided to streaming services to comply. V. Hekali Zhimomi, an Additional Secretary, resisted these entreaties, saying that the rules “should be implemented regardless of the difficulties”. 

Apurva Chandra, the I&B Ministry’s Secretary, echoed some of the industry’s concerns, and “emphasised on the need to have a more pragmatic approach, rather than applying the provisions applicable to films and TV on OTT platforms which are a different form of media.”

While that may have signaled to some streaming services that the letter of the  Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act amendment had taken a fortunate backseat to its spirit, others did not take chances, with far more intrusive warnings each time smoking scenes appear, according to a review by The Hindu.  However, regardless of the platform, the level of anti-tobacco messaging on all streaming platforms has increased in some form or the other, with Ministry officials going easy on textual enforcement, and streaming services abandoning litigation to challenge the rules. 

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