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Health over profit

In a major setback for the $11 billion tobacco industry, the apex court on Wednesday dismissed a plea seeking to roll back the implementation of a new rule that directed the tobacco industry to ensure that pictorial health warnings on all tobacco products cover 85 percent of the box containing them. Meanwhile, counsel for the Centre told the court that it was committed to the new rules, which came into effect on April 1, and opposes any stay on their implementation.  

Early into its tenure, the NDA government had proposed that manufacturers print health warnings on 85 percent of the surface of a cigarette pack, up from 20 percent. With 9 lakh deaths every year attributed to tobacco use in India, the government has advocated for stiffer warnings. But the new policy, aimed at making consumers more aware of the debilitating effects of tobacco, has witnessed a backlash from the industry. High-ranking officials within the industry have deemed the policy “impractical” and claimed it will boost cigarette smuggling. The Tobacco Institute of India, whose members account for 98 percent of cigarettes manufactured in the country, had said the move will result in an estimated loss of Rs 350 crore a day in the industry’s turnover. But the Supreme Court’s ruling does not definitively clarify whether the industry will start complying with the new rules or sell old stock while it waits for the Karnataka court to decide. Suffice to say, public health should always 
trump the profits of a select few.

The World Health Organisation recently said that the economic burden attributable to tobacco-related diseases in India stands at a staggering Rs 1,04,500 crore annually. The WHO has pitched for large-size warnings on packs to control tobacco consumption in a cost-effective manner. Many studies on the impact of Australia’s first ground-breaking plain packaging tobacco laws have shown that there was a “statistically significant increase” in the number of people who have either thought about or made attempts to quit smoking. “Graphic health warnings sound a ringing alarm each time a tobacco user – whether current or prospective – reaches for that tobacco pack,” according to Nandita Murukutla, a public health expert. “These images empower individuals to make a more informed choice about what they are doing to themselves and others when they use tobacco.” 

Moreover, in a nation with low levels of literacy and a stunted public education system, these images will hold greater sway in preventing young adults from picking the habit.  A research paper by CS Ramesh of the Mumbai-based Tata Memorial Centre stated that “the cost of tobacco consumption exceeds the total combined revenue and capital expenditure [budget estimates] by the government and the State on medical and public health, water supply and sanitation.” Across the world, tobacco-related multinational companies have admitted that their products are harmful for general consumption and agreed to adopt stiffer packaging rules as part of their legal obligations. India must follow suit soon.
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