When Umesh Narain Sharma’s public interest litigation (PIL) was being heard at the Supreme Court, he was battling for his life, recalls his advocate Aishwarya Bhati.

An advocate with the Allahabad High Court, Sharma had been a tobacco consumer for several decades. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2010. And just weeks ago, he had to undergo his second surgery after the cancer relapsed.

Sharma’s PIL is against the Centre’s delay in implementing plain packaging norms for tobacco products to make them less attractive to young people. The effort is to stop tobacco products from being “cool” for the next generation so they are protected from getting addicted, says Bhati, who had taken with her to Court a foreign plain pack tobacco product and the locally packed ones to illustrate the difference. The Centre now has to give its response to the Court.

Plain packaging involves packing the tobacco product in a standardised colour (usually brown) with the mandatory health warnings, but sans logo, branding, promotional information etc.

Australia became the first country in the world to implement plain packaging from December 2012. The milestone event was not without its share of litigation both in Australia (from tobacco majors) and overseas, through constitutional challenges and by invoking cross-country trade investment treaties.

But the campaign for plain packaging is only set to gain more currency as the World Health Organisation makes it the theme for this year’s World Tobacco Day, May 31.

Pictorial warnings

Sharma’s PIL for plain packaging comes even as tobacco companies in India are required to meet the Health Ministry’s April 1 deadline to carry larger pictorial warnings on their products. The pictures are mandated to cover 85 per cent of their space and on both sides of the pack compared with the earlier requirement of 40 per cent coverage on one side. The tobacco industry finds the latest diktat too harsh and ambiguous, besides affecting the livelihood of 45 million people involved with the trade. The said notification has reportedly been challenged in Gujarat.

But explaining why large graphic warnings are needed on both sides, Bhati alleges that shops selling tobacco products position packets such that it hides the graphic warning pictures. Besides, there are special packs for festivals like Holi that are colourful and glamorous, she says.

Glamorous packaging may not influence those already addicted, but it does lure young people and women who represent a prospective consumer base for tobacco companies, she says. In fact, packets work like mini-billboards or advertisements for the companies and plain packaging will make the product look less “macho”, she says, citing the once iconic Marlboro Man.

Tata Memorial Hospital’s Pankaj Chaturvedi points out that about 80 per cent of the cancers he sees as a head and neck surgeon are linked to tobacco. About 50 per cent of those newly diagnosed will die in 12 months, he says.

India is among the largest producers and consumers (over 27 crore) of tobacco, he says. One million die every year from tobacco illnesses and the cost of tobacco-linked illnesses is pegged at ₹1 lakh crore (as big as the Indian pharmaceutical industry), he adds.

Livelihood concerns

The Health Ministry diktat keeps public health at the forefront. The ministries of Commerce, Labour and Agriculture need to support India’s global commitment on reducing tobacco consumption by helping tobacco farmers with an alternative crop, Chaturvedi says.

Throwing the livelihood debate back into the industry’s court, he says, the beedi worker’s plight is just as bad as a smoker. They live with tobacco 24/7, he says, as they inhale it, their water is contaminated with tobacco and this goes into the farms too.

Pointing out the plain case for larger pictorial health warnings on tobacco products, the surgeon says, it is then less likely to attract new consumers. And there is a greater chance of more people quitting the habit.

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