India to introduce larger pictorial warnings

November 10, 2014

October 15 marked a historic day for India, with the introduction of the world’s largest PHWs (Pictorial Health Warning). The Health Minister of India, Dr. Harsh Vardhan announced that the new Pictorial Health Warnings on cigarette packets would cover 85 percent of the principal display area of tobacco packs.

This is a huge improvement on the current average size of 20 percent of the principal display areas of packets (40 percent of one side of cigarette packs). India would have the unique distinction of joining Thailand, when this new regulation is enforced, of having the largest health warnings in the world across all tobacco products. India’s warnings are applicable to all tobacco products, including beedis and smokeless tobacco products.

This initiative will greatly benefit particularly the lower socio-economic sections of the population among whom the use of non-cigarette tobacco products is considerably high. The new warnings are scheduled to appear on packs in less than six months, that is on April 1, 2015.

It is noted that tobacco companies take advantage of the current warnings that are relegated to the bottom of the pack. The companies instruct retailers to stack the packs in a manner that obscures the warnings from public view in order to defeat the right to ‘Informed Choice’ by potential consumers. Thus India has chosen to adopt new laws by learning from past errors.

According to the guidelines of Article 11 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), new warnings are required to be aligned at the top edge of the pack and are scheduled to rotate every two years.

In addition, the tobacco industry will not be able to carry any messages or pictures that promote specific tobacco brands or tobacco use that are inconsistent with the predetermined warnings. It could help to address any misleading or deceptive descriptors such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ which are used by tobacco companies to downplay the harm caused by their products.

In India, packs come in all shapes and sizes, from boxes to pouches to containers, cylindrical, conical or rectangular. When in 2006 India proposed PHWs occupying 50 percent of the total display area of tobacco packs, the tobacco industry interference delayed and diluted its implementation in and out of courts. Thus the new warnings are a true indication of meeting political will and careful preparations by the Government of India and steady consistent advocacy by civil society groups. In recent years India has come up with stringent rules to curb the use of tobacco – all tobacco related advertisements are banned and the sale of tobacco products to minors is an offence. A country-wide ban on smoking in public places came into effect in 2008.

Source: Manjari Peiris, The Nation (October 26, 2014)