India spars over tobacco pack warnings

  • 08/01/2016

A parliamentary panel in India has asked the health ministry for evidence to show that larger health warnings on cigarette packets would cut tobacco consumption.

The panel, which has been criticised before by tobacco control activists for apparent conflict of interest as one of its members owns a tobacco business, sent a list of 32 questions to the federal ministry in October.

It asked the ministry to explain which ingredients in tobacco cause cancer and whether previous government surveys showed that graphic warnings led to a drop in tobacco usage, which is linked to as many as 900,000 deaths a year in India, the world's second-largest tobacco producer.

Some questions cited concerns that larger warnings can hurt tobacco farmers and boost illicit trade.

That surprised officials as they appeared to toe the industry line rather than focus on public health, ministry sources said.

One federal health official said they thought the questions were "almost identical to objections raised by the industry".

"The panel is playing into the tobacco industry's ploy," said Shailesh Vaite, a member of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control, a group of more than 350 global organisations.

Panel chairman Dilip Gandhi denied the panel had been influenced by the tobacco industry, and said it expects to have a report on its findings within 45 days.

Shyama Charan Gupta, a panel member who runs a company that makes traditional hand-rolled "beedi" cigarettes, said he has recused himself from the issue of tobacco warnings and remains on the panel, which scrutinises several other regulations.

The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) – which represents hundreds of local manufacturers in India's US$6 billion cigarette market as well as bigger firms such as ITC Ltd, part-owned by British American Tobacco Plc – said it held talks with the parliamentary panel in July.

"Regulatory impositions adversely impact the livelihood of farmers, the legal cigarette business," said Syed Mahmood Ahmad, director of the TII.

The group did not comment on the panel's questions to the ministry, but has previously said bigger packaging warnings are "unreasonable" and "impractical".

ITC declined to comment.

The health ministry first proposed in October 2014 that 85 percent of a cigarette packet's surface area should carry health warnings, up from 20 percent.

That was opposed by the tobacco industry and put on hold after the parliamentary panel said it needed to analyse the impact on the industry.

The move has also been challenged in courts.