Will enlarged pictorial warnings reduce tobacco consumption?

Kolkata, May 30 : Enlarged pictorial warnings on cigarette packets, showing frightening effects of tobacco consumption on health, may be a welcome step towards educating people about the perils of smoking, but this is still not enough to reduce the consumption rate among the majority of habitual smokers, say stakeholders and experts.

The Supreme Court recently ordered cigarette producers to comply with the health ministry’s new regulation mandating an increase in the size of the pictorial warning to 85 percent of the front and back panels of cigarette packets.

However, many regular smokers who don’t buy full packets admitted to IANS they are unaware about the order.

“I have not seen the enlarged warnings as I don’t buy packets, but one or two cigarettes at a time,” said Vikash Shaw, who smokes about eight cigarettes each day.

Terming the enlarged warnings as “futile”, Babu Hazra, a daily wage labourer, said: “What matters to me is only the sudden price rise.”

Leading cigarette producer ITC has retained the prices of most of its brands but reduced the stick sizes to overcome the 10-15 percent hike in tobacco taxes that was announced in this year’s union budget.

Serviceman Amitava Bhatacharya said although initially the enlarged warning looked scary, it could not stop him from smoking. “When I first saw that big warning image, I was indeed terrified. But eventually I surrendered to my addiction,” Bhattacharya told IANS.

Cigarette retailers too testified they have not seen any significant change in consumption rates.

However, cigarette producers like ITC, Godfrey Phillips and VST Industries have complained that India’s legal cigarette industry is facing a continuous drop in demand because of high taxation and large pictorial warnings.

Dhaneswar Patra, a roadside paan-waala, told IANS: “Even before these warnings were printed on the packets, smokers knew that it is harmful. But still they consumed cigarette at their own will. The same is happening now too.”

On the other hand, doctors and economists are giving a thumbs up to the new regulations.

With almost one million people dying due to direct and passive smoking in India, medico S.K. Paira believed quitting tobacco is comparatively easier than other addictions.

“Smoking creates mental dependency while alcohol and drugs create physical dependency in which withdrawal symptoms are fatal. Mental determination is the best way to give up smoking,” Paira told IANS.

Admitting that the overpowering craving for tobacco makes regular smokers overlook health warnings, psychiatrist Manoj Sharma felt that the enlarged pictorial warning has to be complemented with grass-root level awareness for reducing tobacco consumption.

“Education at the school level is necessary for creating awareness about the ill-effects of smoking. Reducing tobacco consumption depends on the interplay of these two factors,” Sharma told IANS.

Praising the health and family welfare ministry’s decree to print bigger and more disturbing warning on cigarette packets, economist Santanu Mitra told IANS: “The enlarged warning may serve as a discouraging factor for first time smokers and those who are not regular or habituated smokers.”

Papiya Sen, an anti-tobacco activist, sounded confident of propagating the message about the harmful effects of smoking, despite facing strong opposition from the tobacco companies.

Accepting the fact that the message of the perils of smoking is not reaching out to the larger public who smoke beedis since there is no compulsion to cover 85 per cent of the beedi packets with pictorial warning, Sen said: “We have to take one step at a time. I am sure sooner or later we will succeed in making the beedi companies print enlarged warnings too.”

Statistics have shown that beedis account for 48 percent of India’s tobacco consumption.