Attractive cigarette packs may go up in smoke

India might follow in Australia’s footsteps to enforce plain packaging for tobacco products

By Sonal Matharu
Published: Tuesday 24 July 2012


After pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, plain packaging might be the next tool to combat widespread tobacco consumption in India. The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a policy think tank based in Delhi, has worked with University of Melbourne in Australia to prepare a policy document that explains how packaging is used as a marketing gimmick by tobacco companies to lure youngsters. PHFI submitted the document to the Indian government on July 23.

Anti-tobacco campaigners are pushing the government to notify a rule mandating plain packaging of all tobacco products in the country.  If enforced, the rule would prohibit tobacco companies from using logos, colours, images and deceptive phrases like “ultra mild”, “honey dew” and “silky smooth” on the packs to attract customers. They would be obliged to sell their products in one standard prescribed style of packaging. This will ensure that packets of all brands of tobacco products look alike. The packs will continue to carry pictorial warnings. Activists want that this rule should apply to cigarettes, bidis as well as all forms of smokeless tobacco products.

Shakuntala Gamlin, joint secretary with the Union health ministry, said the government cannot instantly enforce this new rule for tobacco control but will work towards implementing it. The government will have to amend the existing Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) of 2003 to introduce this new clause. Under Section 5 of the Act, advertising of tobacco products, except for on the packaging and at the point of sale, is prohibited. To enforce plain packaging, this section will have to be amended.

“By bringing in plain packaging, we will remove any element of appeal,” says K Srinath Reddy, president of PHFI. He adds that COTPA can be amended through a proper parliamentary procedure.

Australia is the first country to enforce plain packaging for tobacco products in the interest of public health. However, the tobacco industry there has moved court against the ruling. “A final call on the case is expected in December,” says Nathan Grills, public health physician at Nossal Institute for Global Health in Australia. The United Kingdom and New Zealand are also considering a similar move.

The task force on tobacco control, including PHFI officials and Australian experts, asserts that introducing plain packaging helps mitigate the tobacco epidemic. It reduces youth initiation into tobacco use and encourages existing users to quit. There are currently 275 million tobacco users in India. One million Indians die each year due to tobacco consumption.

Experts from the task force interviewed 346 adults in the India for a market research to study the influence of plain packaging on sale of tobacco products. Over 80 per cent of the participants agreed that plain packaging would help in reducing the appeal and promotional value of a tobacco product.

Nata Menabde, World Health Organization's representative to India, said that though plain packaging alone will not help in reducing tobacco consumption, it is one of the strategies governments could adopt. “It is one of the most workable instruments in reducing tobacco consumption,” she said. She also expressed her displeasure at the UN giving an award to the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), India's major cigarette producing company, at the Rio+ 20 Summit. She said it came as “blow in the face of the UN”.

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