Dissipating the dangers
Progressive amendments to the rules under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2004 comprise a much-needed, praiseworthy decision towards shielding young population from the life-threatening influence of surrogate promotion and insidious glamorisation of tobacco on OTT platforms in India
When ace cinestar Ajay Devgn flaunts his cigarette in non-smoking zones perpetually “hanging from his lips” in some of the scenes of Runway 34 – a film inspired by the true story behind the Jet Airways Doha to Kochi flight, 9W 555 – viewers, mainly youth, legitimises the act of their “filmi hero” by imitating the act and getting into the world of tobacco addiction.
Devgn’s aviation drama, which was theatrically released on April 22, 2022, became the most watched film on Prime Video after it was released on the over-the-top (OTT) platform on June 24 in the same year.
The film that “glorified smoking” was watched on OTT platforms without displaying anti-tobacco warnings, as seen in movies screened in theatres and TV. However, in the film, the actor never lit the cigarette in non-smoking designated areas.
This film is neither the first case of tobacco glamorisation, nor it’s the last one at OTT platforms. There are many such shows where tobacco products are glorified in the name of characterisation of different characters in the film, TV shows, web-series, etc, which is seen by health experts as a “surrogate approach” to ‘lure’ a significant percentage of adolescent population as they (tobacco manufacturers) see it as a big market for their products.
Taking all these points in consideration, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare acted tough and made it mandatory for OTT streaming platforms to display anti-tobacco warnings, as seen in movies screened in theatres and TV, through a notification issued on May 31 this year by amending the rules under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2004 (COTPA).
There is a very valid reason to bring such norms for OTT platforms, as children and youth are sparing more time online for entertainment purposes. Due to the unprecedented Covid-19, people, especially youngsters, got into the habit of spending more time on OTT platforms rather than in movie halls.
Studies have found that youth are getting influenced by tobacco consumption shown in movies, series, and short films streamed on OTT platforms as, at present, there are no regulations imposed on OTT platforms regarding tobacco consumption display.
According to the notification, which was released on World No Tobacco Day that is observed on May 31 every year, publishers of online curated content displaying tobacco products, or their use will be required to display anti-tobacco health spots at the beginning and middle of the programme.
The historic decision taken by Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought round of applause for India from the World Health Organisation as, with this, India has taken a lead in making it mandatory for OTT streaming platforms to display anti-tobacco warnings.
Talking to Millennium Post over the issue, Mandaviya said, “The government is committed to a better and healthy future for our youth population. The rising use of tobacco among the young generation is a matter of great concern and the steps like mandatory display of anti-tobacco warnings at OTT streaming platforms will help in creating awareness among youth about the debilitating and harmful effects of tobacco consumption.”
“The publishers of online curated content that display tobacco products or their use would have to comply with the new guidelines, including an anti-tobacco warning message. These messages have to be legible and readable with black font on a white background with the warning, ‘Tobacco causes cancer’ or ‘Tobacco kills’,” the minister said, adding that these guidelines would go a long way to dissuade tobacco consumption.
Failure to comply with the provisions will result in action taken by an inter-ministerial committee, either suo moto or on receiving a complaint, the minister said, adding that this committee comprises representatives from the health ministry, information and broadcasting ministry, and the ministry of electronics and information technology.
The panel will identify the publisher of the online curated content, issue a notice providing a reasonable opportunity to explain the failure, and require appropriate modifications to the content, he said, adding that besides the anti-tobacco health warning messages, health spots and audio-visual disclaimers will have to be in the same language as used in the show or film.
Hailing the government decision, noted health expert Professor Uma Kumar, who is the founder and head of Rheumatology Department, AIIMS, said, “As a public health expert, I strongly endorse the government’s efforts to regulate tobacco depiction on OTT platforms.”
“Tobacco consumption remains a significant public health challenge in India, causing immense harm to individuals and burdening our healthcare system. It is alarming to note that tobacco is responsible for approximately 1.35 million deaths annually in our country,” Kumar said, adding that tobacco use is a major risk factor for several chronic diseases, including cancer, heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and respiratory disorders.
“The devastating health impact of tobacco affects not only those who directly consume it but also non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. These health consequences take a severe toll on the quality of life of affected individuals and their families,” the AIIMS professor said.
“By extending regulations to OTT platforms, we are taking a proactive step to control the portrayal of tobacco use and reduce its glamorisation. Exposure to smoking scenes and tobacco imagery in movies and digital content can influence behaviours and attitudes towards tobacco, especially among young people,” she said.
Agreeing with the views of health experts, Ranjit Kumar, a Supreme Court lawyer, stressed that tobacco is considered as a major cause for morbidity and mortality in India.
“Given that there is a ban on direct and indirect advertisement under COTPA, the tobacco industry uses entertainment medium to promote their hazardous products. The recent move to extend the laws regulating tobacco depiction in films and programme shown in theatres and television to OTT streaming platforms by bridging the regulatory gaps is a welcome and much needed step as OTT platforms were being extensively used to promote tobacco use and ridicule anti-tobacco laws,” he said.
On the issue, consumer activist Arun Gupta said, “The decision is commendable. It will help in discouraging youth from getting addicted to tobacco. Besides, there is an urgent need to focus on food related deaths, as the uncontrolled market of junk foods is giving rise to life-taking diseases.”
While underscoring the imperative nature of tobacco-free battle for a healthier nation, celebrated international wrestler Sangram Singh, who is the ambassador of Fit India and Tobacco Free India campaign, said, “The implementation of tobacco regulations on OTT platforms is a groundbreaking step towards safeguarding our youth from the perils of tobacco consumption.”
“With the increasing popularity of digital media among the younger generation, it is crucial to control the depiction of tobacco imagery in online content. By doing so, we prevent the glamorisation of tobacco use and protect the impressionable minds of our youth from being influenced negatively,” Singh said.
Stressing that these regulations would help in bringing major societal changes, Singh said, “These regulations wield a profound influence on public health, igniting a crucial awakening about the perils of tobacco use.”
“In a recent study conducted on youth of Delhi, it has come to notice that adolescents, aged 12-16, exposed to tobacco imagery in Bollywood films, were 2.3 times more likely to succumb to its allure. Every year, nearly 13.5 lakh lives in India fall prey to tobacco’s deadly clutches, while 15 percent of our young students aged 13-15 bear the burden of tobacco use,” he said.
On the issue, noted cancer surgeon Pankaj Chaturvedi said that the implementation of this legislation would contribute a lot to India’s struggle against tobacco.
“The government has done a commendable job. It will not only save lakhs of lives, but would also go a long way in strengthening the country’s economy. The youth of the nation would be saved,” said Chaturvedi, who is head & neck cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital.
However, the decision has not gone well with filmmakers and other stakeholders as they see it as a useless exercise that may not serve the purpose of the government.
In response to the rollout of new rules for OTT platforms, filmmaker Hansal Mehta, who was the director of the recently released Netflix series Scoop and Sony LIV series Scam 1992, sarcastically said, “Yes. The only reason tobacco products and smoking kill is our shows/films. By putting these tickers, we will have healthy people who don’t smoke. Very progressive decision.”
Taking to Twitter, Mehta asked how these ads impact the lives of those who are habituated to smoking/tobacco. “There is no concrete data to establish the fact that many people have stopped smoking/tobacco usage with these on-screen warnings!” Mehta exclaimed.
It’s worth mentioning that tobacco is a prominent risk factor for six to eight leading causes of death, and almost 40 per cent of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and lung disorders, are attributable to tobacco use.
As per the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) 2019, nearly one-fifth of the students aged 13-15 have used tobacco in some form. Prevalence of tobacco use among boys is 9.6 per cent and among girls is 7.4 per cent. The study further highlighted that the median age for initiation of cigarette, bidi smoking, and smokeless tobacco use were 11.5 years, 10.5 years and 9.9 years respectively.
A leap towards becoming ‘vishwa guru’ in tobacco control
In an exclusive conversation, Vandana Shah, who is vice president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, talked about the global impact of this landmark decision taken by the Health Ministry. Shah advocated that the move will transform the landscape of online streaming content and its impact on public health. Excerpts:
What will be the significance of extending tobacco regulations to online streaming services?
The extension of tobacco regulations to OTT platforms is a landmark step in India’s ongoing efforts to protect public health. With the increasing popularity of digital content consumption, especially among the youth, it is imperative that we address this access point for tobacco imagery. OTT platforms are accessible to audiences of all age groups, including impressionable youngsters. By regulating tobacco depiction on these platforms, we can effectively control the influence of tobacco marketing and ensure that the nation’s youth are shielded from the allure of tobacco use.
How do these regulations counter tobacco marketing tactics?
Tobacco companies have historically exploited entertainment platforms to market their products indirectly. When actors, celebrities or popular characters are seen smoking in movies, TV shows and web series, this can have a huge impact on social norms and the acceptability of tobacco use. Implementing these regulations counters such tactics and limits the reach and impact of tobacco marketing in digital media platforms.
How has the OTT industry responded to these regulations?
The response from the OTT industry has been mixed. Some big Indian OTT players have wholeheartedly accepted the new tobacco rules, and are showing the warning even before the three-month period granted by the government. However, some big players are trying hard to stop these regulations.
How does this position India as a global leader in tobacco control?
India’s bold move has gained attention worldwide, showcasing the country’s determination to create a tobacco-free society. India’s leadership in protecting youth from tobacco use and curbing imagery that glamorises tobacco has earned international recognition. These regulations reinforce India’s position as a global voice in tobacco control, motivating other countries to adopt similar policies.
How do these regulations align with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a healthy India?
These regulations are in perfect harmony with Prime Minister Modi’s vision of Swasthya Bharat or a healthy India. His emphasis on combating tobacco use in “Mann Ki Baat” finds resonance in these concrete actions. Regulating tobacco depiction in online content sends a powerful message, prioritising the health and well-being of our citizens.
Views expressed are personal