Terming as "too harsh" the government’s proposed 85 per cent pictorial warnings on tobacco products, a parliamentary panel on Tuesday recommended a drastic reduction to 50 per cent in size, inviting flak from MPs, health experts and cigarette companies.
With Health Ministry’s April 1 deadline for implementing the 85 per cent warning just days away, chairman of the Committee on Subordinate Legislations Dilip Gandhi justified the recommendations, saying the size of the warnings have been urged to be increased from present 40 to 50 per cent.
"The committee is of the considered view that in order to have a balanced approach, the warning on cigarette packets should be 50 per cent on both sides of the principal display area instead of 85 per cent of the principal display area…
"… As it will be too harsh as deliberated in the earlier paras, will result in flooding of illicit cigarettes in the country," the committee said in its report which was tabled in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
Meanwhile cigarette companies like ITC and Godfrey Philips said there is no evidence to suggest large graphic warnings reduce consumption of tobacco and termed them as "gruesome, highly excessive and virtually amounting to terrorising a consumer".
Deposing before the Parliamentary panel looking into the vexed issue of pictorial warnings on tobacco products, ITC also said the proposed large graphic health warnings will provide a boost to illegal cigarettes since they do not carry the health warnings and will lead to infringement on the Intellectual Property Rights of trademark owners.
Expressing "disappointment" over the recommendations, MPs said more than one million people in India die every year, most of whom do not have health insurance for treatment of cancer.
The committee also dismissed issues related to conflict of interest due to presence of beedi baron Shyama Charan Gupta in the panel and said he was not present in any of the meetings on tobacco. "We have increased the size of the pictorial warnings on both sides from present 40 per cent to 50 per cent," Gandhi said.
"Reduction of the pictorial warning from 85 per cent to 50 per cent, it this is correct, then I am disappointed. One million Indians die every year. Most of these people are poor Indians who do not have health insurance to cover cancer and other problems from tobacco," BJD MP Jay Panda said.
Terming as "excessive" the recommendation for 50 per cent warnings, a tobacco body alleged the move is aimed at "pleasing" the anti-tobacco activists, many of whom are espousing the cause of "vested" interests.
K Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) said the earlier proposal of 85 per cent size was much stronger and any withdrawal from that will make it "less effective". He hoped the government will stand by its decision of going ahead with 85 per cent size.