ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Where Is the Proof?

A crucial committee fi nds no "Indian evidence" that tobacco consumption leads to cancer.

Even as India was preparing to host the South Asian health ministers’ meeting on 8 April 2015 it was embroiled in a health controversy that was as farcical as it was shocking. The central government halted the decision to increase the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco products (scheduled for 1 April) after the Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation examining the provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 said the government should look more carefully at the case for health warnings before going ahead. Two members of the committee from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made strong statements that would have been worthy of the most devout lobbyists of the tobacco industry. Not surprising, since one of the committee members, Shyama Charan Gupta, is also known as the “bidi baron” of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The conflict of interest was obvious, but neither did the MP recuse himself nor did anyone else ask him to. The chairperson of the committee, Dilip Gandhi, insisted that all surveys and studies linking cancer to tobacco were done abroad and there was no such “Indian study.”

Health activists, doctors and other politicians reacted angrily to these statements and pointed out that it was surprising that a parliamentary committee on such a subject was unaware of the many studies which established the link between tobacco consumption and cancer, and other illnesses. Among these studies is the comprehensive “Report on Tobacco Control in India” brought out by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in 2004. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped in to direct the ministry to increase the pictorial warning on tobacco packs to 65% of the packet’s area when it became obvious that the statements were proving to be a political embarrassment. However, this was a “compromise” between the earlier planned increase to 85% (60% pictures and 25% text) of the packet area to be covered by warnings and the existing 40% area. Interestingly, the Rajya Sabha committee on subordinate legislation examining the same issue in 2013 had recommended that the pictorial warning should be increased to an area of 90% of the tobacco product. India is one of the signatories to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) since 2003.

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