Indian tobacco industry groups oppose shock-photo warning rule on cigarette

The powerful tobacco industry groups could avoid government’s decision to require photographs of cancer patients on cigarette packs sold in India by next month, health activists said Tuesday.

Several other countries have tried similar strategies to discourage smoking.

"Lobby groups are working very hard and they have huge money power," said Prakash Gupta, head of the Healis Sekhsaria Institute For Public Health, who had spearheaded the campaign for the graphic health warnings. "I wouldn't be surprised if cigarette and other tobacco companies get extensions for compliance."

A government order earlier this year said photographs of patients with oral cancer, and of babies - with breathing tubes due to passive smoking damage - should be prominently shown on cigarette packs by the first week of December.

The government is under pressure from the tobacco lobby, however.

India's Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has said that four leaders of state governments and 150 members of the federal parliament have spoken to him against pictorial labeling on tobacco products.

"The powerful tobacco lobby is going all-out to ensure the warnings don't appear," The Times of India newspaper quoted Ramadoss as saying.

Countries including as Canada, Belgium, Singapore and Australia have already introduced such pictorial warnings, which are recommended by the World Health Organization.

India has a poor record of implementing government bans. Smokers routinely flout an order, issued three years ago, against smoking in public places like playgrounds, clubs, restaurants and railway stations.

The new law says packets must show pictures with "Tobacco Kills" warnings in English and regional languages, and must specify: "Your smoking kills babies," "Tobacco causes slow, painful death," or "Tobacco kills 2,500 Indians everyday."

While Ramadoss did not name anyone, he spoke of powerful companies behind the lobbying. "But I don't care about anything," he said at a public function in the southern city of Chennai, insisting the government would go ahead with the warning.

Ramadoss could not immediately be reached for comments on the latest reports on the issue.

According to the new law, tobacco product makers who do not use pictorial warnings could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$125; EUR104), and shopkeepers could spend a year in jail or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$25; EUR20).

About 250 million people use tobacco in India. Smoking and chewing tobacco kills more than 900,000 people every year, according to the country's health ministry.

Awareness about health risks from tobacco is low among illiterate Indian villagers, said health activist Gupta.

"Most people can't read tobacco warnings and we meet patients who cry, saying they didn't know they would get so sick," he said.

But some Indians believe the new warnings will have an impact.

"I don't think people will completely stop," said Umet Kosla, a management executive who kicked the habit two years ago. "But if pictures hit you and your family every time you reach for a packet, it will make people think twice."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova