How tobacco industry is misleading people with its ads

Don’t believe the newspaper ads on ‘adverse impacts’ of bigger pictorial warnings on cigarette packs.

ByUpendra Bhojani
How tobacco industry is misleading people with its ads
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Major cigarette companies have stopped production since April 1, 2016 in response to a notification issued by Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The notification mandates increase in the size of the graphic health warnings on tobacco packs to 85% of the display area on both sides.

The Tobacco Institute of India (TII), which claims to represent 98% of the cigarette industry, has launched a campaign in response to the notification, giving media statements and quarter-page advertisements in leading dailies justifying its response. Yesterday, the Supreme Court directed the tobacco companies to comply with the 2014 notification linked to above.

At the outset, it is important to recognise that TII, which claims to be “a representative body of farmers, manufacturers, exporters and ancillaries of the cigarettes’ segment of the tobacco industry” is highly influenced by major cigarette companies. Some of the past and present directors of TII have been employees of ITC (India’s largest cigarette manufacturer). Representatives of cigarette majors find place in TII’s board. TII is a member of the International Tobacco Growers’ Association, a front group of transnational tobacco corporations known to subvert tobacco control policies globally.

In advertisements, TII contends negative impact of ‘excessive’ warnings on the livelihood of 46 million Indians. While a comprehensive and reliable estimate of workers in tobacco sector is simply not available, the industry is known to inflate this number.

In its annual publication for the year 2002, TII put this estimate at about 35 million. However, the Annual Survey of Industries (2001-2002) by the government of India reported that 0.49 million workers were employed in tobacco manufacturing (including leaf processing) in that year. National Sample Survey (2004-2005) estimated 4.62 million workers in tobacco manufacturing.  Of course, we need to add to this number, the people engaged in tobacco growing and sales. But even so, it is less likely to match the number claimed by the industry. This number needs to be seen in reference to another number – that of deaths and misery caused by tobacco use, which the industry never talks about.

As per a nationally representative study, smoking tobacco would have caused 930,000 adult deaths in the year 2010, reducing median survival of women by eight years and of men by six years in India. Add to this, the burden of smokeless tobacco, the most common form of tobacco consumption in India.

In addition to these numbers, it is important to address the issue of livelihood. The threat of lost livelihoods is actually not as great and as real as it is made out to be by the industry. The World Health Organization examined future trends in tobacco consumption and concluded that comprehensive tobacco control measures (including pack warnings) will lead to an annual one per cent reduction in prevalence of tobacco consumption, which is considered a best-case scenario. Even then, the reduction in tobacco use prevalence will mean an increase in absolute number of tobacco users considering the projected population growth. Hence, any significant impact on livelihoods of people in tobacco sector in shorter term is unlikely.

If anything, there is a need to focus attention on shifting workers from this occupationally hazardous sector to healthier alternatives.

It is the intent of TII, packaged as it is in statistics, that needs to be understood. In August 2000, even before India enacted a national tobacco control legislation and when World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (a global public health treaty) was still under negotiation, TII had made representation to WHO resisting proposed tobacco control measures in the treaty and termed the package design/labeling rules (health warnings) “unsuitable” for India.

When India enacted the national law in the year 2003 mandating health warnings on tobacco products, TII had resorted to similar tactics, giving large advertisements in newspapers saying “the livelihood of 35 million Indian farmers, tribals, traders and laborers is under threat”.

The initially proposed health warnings were watered down and the health ministry notified a new set of warnings in March 2008, to be only on one side of the packs covering 40% of the display area. In response, TII wrote letters to then health minister to consider a ‘pragmatic’ policy since industry remains a “source of livelihood for 38 million people”. All major cigarette companies subsequently stopped production.

This shows that TII has been systematically opposing tobacco control measures, including health warnings, because of a perceived ‘threat’ to livelihood.

Another contention of TII in their ads is that the large-size warnings will encourage growth of smuggled cigarettes. To this end, TII cites a study by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. One needs to read this study with caution. The study was commissioned by the FICCI Committee Against Smuggling and Counterfeiting Activities Destroying the Economy (CASCADE). Not only that, cigarette companies are prominently represented in FICCI. The FICCI CASCADE that commissioned this study is headed by Anil Rajput, senior vice president (corporate affairs) at ITC. Conflict of interest, anyone?

There is no credible evidence to support the claim that larger graphic warnings will cause an increase in illicit trade, which is determined by facts like the ability of a government to enforce tax policy and collect duties, the ease and cost of smuggling tobacco in a country, the presence and level of development of organised crime networks, the extent of tobacco industry participation, and the overall level of corruption.

The only way to combat illegal trade in tobacco products is by enforcing customs controls, strengthening tax administration/monitoring and use of anti-counterfeiting and traceability technology. In fact, tobacco transnationals are known to exploit weak borders. For example, Guardian, working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, exposed how British American Tobacco, which has about 30% stake in ITC, facilitated tobacco smuggling at a massive scale.

By stopping production and instituting media campaign, cigarette majors have shown that they aren’t exactly good corporate citizens. It is indeed commendable that despite the mounting pressure from industry, the government has stayed firm on its notification of large pictorial health warnings. We need policies that safeguard people’s health over commercial interests of a few multinational companies and barons of tobacco industry.

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