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India’s soft stand on tobacco draws fire

DILI (TIMOR LESTE): Delay by India to implement larger pictorial warnings on packs of tobacco products came up for criticism at the World Health Organisation’s regional meet here as delegates assessed tobacco-control measures by countries in the region.

“We are going to emphasise on it (delay by India) at the roundtable. Even Indonesia which is not signatory to WHO’s framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC) has implemented 40% pictorial warning on both sides of packs. India, being an important member and such a large country, has only 40% on one side,” WHO Regional Director (South East Asia) Poonam Khetrapal Singh said.

India’s health minister J P Nadda Nadda was absent at 68th South East Asia Regional Committee meeting which is being attended by health ministers from nine countries of the region. Health ministry officials cited domestic engagements as reasons for Nadda’s absence. India was represented by a senior official of the ministry at the meeting of the highest decision-making body of WHO for the region. Thailand’s health minister also couldn’t attend the meeting.

Nadda though has maintained that the health ministry is determined to implement stricter tobacco control measures, including larger pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products.

The health ministry had earlier notified to implement 80% pictorial warnings on packs of all tobacco products from April 1. However, the government deferred the move following an interim report by a parliamentary sub-committee asking the ministry to put the decision on hold till it consults all stakeholders and submits a final report.

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The government’s decision to defer implementation of larger pictorial warnings had upset several public health groups.

“It requires political will. All other countries in the region have set example by prescribing warnings up to 90% on both sides. India being an important player in the region has shown poor performance,” said a senior WHO official advocating for stronger provisions to control advertising and marketing of tobacco products.

Emphasising that India is a signatory to FCTC which mandates tobacco control measures, Khetrapal Singh said, “We advise countries on what they should be doing for good health of their people and then leave it to them to either follow our advice or if they choose not to. These are countries which are signatories to a resolution that was adopted in the World Health Assembly. Respecting their sovereign right, we leave it to them to now implement whatever they themselves have adopted.”

She said tobacco use is an important “risk factor for non communicable diseases” and hence high on WHO’s agenda.

Dili, the capital of the host country, has the highest percentage of tobacco consumers in the region. Though the country, which earned its independence from Indonesia just about a decade back, has implemented several tobacco control measures, it proposed WHO to focus on the issue to be able to share experiences from other member countries, Khetrapal said.

Experts said delaying larger pictorial warnings is likely to have a serious impact on the health of those who are less educated and poor. Recently, a study by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland revealed about 46% of illiterate men smoke, while only 16% of college graduates are hooked to tobacco. For the uneducated, larger pictorial warnings could be a way to create awareness about the dangers of tobacco use.

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