On World No Tobacco Day (May 31, 2023), India became the first country in the world to crack down tobacco marketing in online streaming platforms (commonly called OTT platforms) by amending the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), 2004 rules, and making it mandatory for these platforms to display tobacco-linked health warnings on streamed content.

Such health spots and tobacco-related warnings are already displayed in movie theatres and television under the film rules. As per the newly notified rule, all publishers of online curated content — barring news and current affairs — will now have to display health spots for a minimum of 30 seconds and a disclaimer in the beginning and the middle of the programmes. When a tobacco product appears on the screen, it will have to be accompanied by a prominent static health warning at the bottom of the screen.

This move by the government is laudable and critical as it will be a major step to prevent youth, the main consumers of streaming content, from taking up tobacco use.

The rules naturally created pressure on companies who manage streaming platforms. There are conversations as well as media articles in the public domain citing practical difficulties in implementing the rules. Representations have also been shared with the Ministry in an effort to delay implementation. As per the industry groups, the new rules infringe on the freedom of speech and expression of the creators of online content, or that health warnings will of online content, or that health warnings will disrupt viewing experience and the high cost of introducing these warnings across “millions of content hours”.

This is far from the truth. The morbidity and mortality due to tobacco use are well established. As per the World Health Organization, tobacco use is linked to cancer, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. It claims nearly 1.35 million lives in India every year which underlines the fact that effective tobacco control is crucial for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases.

Each year, the government spends crores of rupees in treating patients suffering from tobacco-related diseases. The high burden on the public exchequer is much more than the costs involved in adding health warnings on footage of films or web series on streaming platforms. As per GATS 2016, the economic burden on health is to the tune of ₹1,77,341 crore, which is 1 percent of India’s GDP.

So why must the new rules be implemented?

In the wake of the growing popularity of OTT platforms, the amended rules calling for disclaimers, health spots and static warning will go a long way in highlighting the health harms of tobacco use. In the last few years, in the absence of regulation, instances of tobacco imagery and placement on online content has increased manifold.

As per available studies, tobacco exposure has shifted from movies and TV to new media including streaming platforms. According to Truth initiative’s 2021 report on tobacco imagery in entertainment, While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand, 70 percent of the series popular among young adults on these platforms portray tobacco use. 60 percent of the top streamed shows exposed an estimated 27 million young people to tobacco imagery in 2020. Smoking and vaping imagery is present in 62 percent of “most binged shows” among viewers ages 15-24.

Regulation of OTT platforms is just the tip of the iceberg. The Government should also ban all forms of tobacco marketing aimed at youth on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram. In August-September 2022, Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement platform (TERM) of a global health organization, Vital Strategies, found that out of a total of 806 instances of online marketing observed, 98 percent was indirect marketing. Nearly two-thirds of this indirect marketing was by smoking tobacco companies with brand extension being the most commonly used indirect marketing tool.

An evaluation of Film Rules by Vital Strategies and WHO India in 2017 showed that audience reactions to the anti-tobacco messages were favourable, indicated an increased concern about tobacco’s harmful effects and an augmented intention to quit using tobacco. This can be achieved through the new OTT regulations as they are aligned with Tobacco Free TV and Movie rules and will ensure full compliance with Section 5 of the tobacco control law.

Multi-stakeholder support is need of the hour

The tobacco industry is consistently adopting innovative ways to influence youth and working professionals and it is time to strengthen regulatory action. It is important that the Government remains steadfast on the implementation date of the new rules because this is a question of saving the lives of our youth and protecting them from tobacco-related diseases. The rules are a bold step and must be lauded and supported by all stakeholders to ensure their implementation without fail.

The Government should now come up with guidelines for social media digital content providers to ensure strict compliance with laws. All forms of tobacco marketing on social media channels which are targeted at youth and are in violation of the law should be banned. Only then can India reduce tobacco-related disease burden substantially and also gain recognition as a global leader in protecting young people from exposure to tobacco imagery and use.

(The writer is Former Health Secretary, Government of India. Views are personal.)