A recent television advertisement for bpl India, the mobile phone service provider, caused some consternation among the Indian health fraternity. A man waiting at a bus stop receives a call on his cellphone. As he smiles, the pandemonium around him, the noise of a drilling machine, and the honking of vehicles, all become softer. The scene shifts to a pregnant woman, sitting on a chair, with a cellphone pressed to her stomach. The source of the man's joy becomes evident: he is listening to the sounds of their unborn baby.
The impact of cellphones on health is a hotly debated topic in the West. There are allegations that cellphones could cause cancer, tumours, cardiac arrests, migraines, adversely affect pregnancy, interfere with implants like pacemakers, and expedite the onset of neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
Although industry-sponsored research shows little evidence of a causal relationship between cancer and radiations from cellphones, independent studies suggest that the link is profound. A research published by scientists at the University of Montpellier in the Journal of Bio-Electro Magnetics suggests that pregnant women who use cellphones could be causing serious harm to their unborn babies. Madeleine Bastide, a professor at the University, studied 6,000 chicken embryos, and found that those heavily exposed to emissions from cellphones during their 21-day incubation period were five times less likely to survive than those not thus exposed.
Prabha Alexander, client-servicing manager at McCann, Mumbai -- the advertising agency that made the controversial advertisement -- is convinced that they are in the right for two reasons: one, the consumer is aware of the risks involved in the use of cellphones, and two, there is no evidence that the risks are real, and at any rate, they are minimal. Asserting that the advertisement was much appreciated in the industry, Alexander elaborates, "The client brief to us was to establish the superiority of the connectivity in the south. The ad brings out a 'golden human moment' in a relationship. The ad campaign conformed to all guidelines and clearances that are needed for exhibiting an advertisement. The scientific community must come up with unbiased research on the health hazards involved in the use of cellphones. It is not the responsibility of the industry to address every rumour."
Anupam Sachdeva, childhood cancer specialist at Sir Gangaram Hospital, New Delhi, disagrees: "When there is a certain level of uncertainty, it is better to err on the side of caution. We must be sure of how much damage this form of radiation causes, its impact level at various stages of development, and, of course, the levels of exposure."
A Swedish research team exposed mice to microwaves, and found that the mice developed malignant cerebral cancer. Manpreet Gambhir, radiologist, Delhi Magnetic Resonance Centre, says, "The signals emitted from the handsets are very strong. Even when radiologists do the Doppler test, they avoid the heart area. I believe the foetal heart should be protected from signals of any sort." Sunil Kumar Bakshi, cardiologist, New Delhi, believes that sensitive issues such as this one should be handled carefully and backed by scientific data. Rajiv Lochan, cardiologist, is circumspect, "At the moment, what we have is anecdotal, not facts from medical books."
When uncertainty prevails, should a product be advertised in a manner that promotes potentially risky behaviour? In the past, several products that were considered safe turned out to be extremely toxic. To name a few: tobacco, pesticides like ddt, medicines like thalidomide, food additives, preservatives and colouring agents, electrical transmission lines, plastics and by-products, refrigerants like chloro-fluoro carbons (cfcs). Advertisers and business interest groups have, however, been consistently stubborn in their resistance to moves against environmental and social ills, like tobacco.
Mumbai-based Advertising Standards Council of India (asci) is the advertising media's self-regulatory body. It deals with complaints on advertisements that are false, misleading, indecent, illegal, lead to unsafe practices or unfair competition. Gualbert Pereira, secretary, asci, says, "Our code is morally binding on members," but adds that the code is limited in its reach. He says that even basic concepts like banning 'pester power' (children pestering parents for a product), have not reached India yet. Before the asci embarks on expanding the scope of the existing code, Pereira says, the reach of the existing code needs to be consolidated.
"When voluntary initiatives, like the asci, fail, people turn to consumer societies and consumer courts, but rarely go on to the courts," says Pereira. Leading consumer activist, H D Shourie, Common Cause, says, "There is nothing to govern safety, risk and communication in India. Clients and advertising companies are driven chiefly by competition with other brands. Most advertising councils only address unfair competition and plagiarism. A few address unfair and obscene advertisement. They do not, however, have the capacity to address health, environment and social responsibility aspects."
Weak regulations make it easy for corporates to dodge globally prevalent norms. The situation is further compounded by the fact that civil society in India is apprehensive about moving the courts against powerful corporates. Regulatory organisations, like the Bureau of Indian Standards, which ought to be at the forefront of such debates, have neither the required scientific capacity nor political clout. Clearly, in the prevailing situation, the initiative has to come voluntarily from the companies rather than through civil action.