Indian lawmakers, health officials spar over tobacco pack warnings

Monday, 11 January 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Untitled-1 Reuters: A parliamentary panel in India reviewing whether to put larger health warnings on cigarette packets has asked the health ministry for evidence to show that such a move would cut tobacco consumption, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

The panel, which has been criticised before by tobacco control activists for apparent conflict of interest as one of its members owns a tobacco business, sent a list of 32 questions to the federal ministry in October.

It asked the ministry to explain which ingredients in tobacco cause cancer and whether previous government surveys showed that graphic warnings led to a drop in tobacco usage, which is linked to as many as 900,000 deaths a year in India, the world’s second-largest tobacco producer.

Some questions cited concerns that larger warnings can hurt tobacco farmers and boost illicit trade. That surprised officials as they appeared to toe the industry line rather than focus on public health, ministry sources said.

One federal health official said they thought the questions were ‘almost identical to objections raised by the industry’.

“The panel is playing into the tobacco industry’s ploy,” said Shailesh Vaite, a member of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control, a group of more than 350 global organisations. Panel chairman Dilip Gandhi denied the panel had been influenced by the tobacco industry, and said it expects to have a report on its findings within 45 days. He declined to comment on the list of questions sent to the health ministry. Shyama Charan Gupta, a panel member who runs a company that makes traditional hand-rolled ‘beedi’ cigarettes, said he has recused himself from the issue of tobacco warnings. He remains on the panel, which scrutinises several other regulations.

The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) – which represents hundreds of local manufacturers in India’s $ 6 billion cigarette market as well as bigger firms such as ITC Ltd, part-owned by British American Tobacco Plc – said it held talks with the parliamentary panel in July.

“Regulatory impositions adversely impact the livelihood of farmers, the legal cigarette business,” said Syed Mahmood Ahmad, director of the TII.

The group did not comment on the panel’s questions to the ministry, but has previously said bigger packaging warnings are ‘unreasonable’ and ‘impractical’. ITC declined to comment.

The health ministry first proposed in October 2014 that 85% of a cigarette packet’s surface area should carry health warnings, up from 20%. That was opposed by the tobacco industry and put on hold after the parliamentary panel said it needed to analyse the impact on the industry. The move has also been challenged in courts.

The government has put the number of Indians using tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, at around 275 million, and the TII estimates the industry provides a living for 45.7 million people. India ranks 136th of 198 nations that use health warnings on cigarette packs, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Graphic warnings appear to have yielded results in some countries. A 2013 study in Canada, for example, showed that smoking dropped by up to a fifth after the adoption of graphic warning labels. Such communication between the parliamentary panel and the health ministry, which has not previously been reported, risks further delaying the measures, activists and health ministry officials said.

The ministry has defended its proposal, and told the panel that extensive research proves ‘conclusively’ that tobacco causes cancer, a review of the ministry’s responses shows.

In one question, the panel said the proposed increase in the size of the packaging warnings was ‘skewed’, and it questioned how it would cut tobacco use, especially among young people. 

It asked if there was any research planned for ‘evolving’ a less harmful tobacco crop.

The ministry said it believes all forms of tobacco are harmful and addictive, and there is no safe level of tobacco, according to the documents. It cited several studies in its defence.

The panel also asked whether the ministry had data to show how many cancer cases were directly linked to tobacco, and which were the main harmful ingredients in it. In reply, the ministry said cigarettes contain more than 7,000 chemicals, including nicotine, tar and radioactive components.

Australia wins court challenge to tobacco plain packaging

Reuters: A Singapore-based court has refused a challenge by Philip Morris to Australia’s landmark plain packaging legislation passed in 2011, which the tobacco giant had brought under a bi-lateral trade treaty with Hong Kong, the company said.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration declined on jurisdictional grounds to allow the case to proceed, effectively ending the challenge through this venue, which was based on claims that Australia was violating intellectual property laws.

The decision by the court not to hear the case is likely to be seen as a major victory for Australia, which is facing challenges in other forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and for other countries considering similar laws. Australia was the first country in the world to force manufacturers to strip all branding from cigarette packets, most of which are now sold over the counter from blank fronted cabinets, although other countries have followed its lead.

The court said on its website that it would make its decision public once any potentially confidential material within it had been redacted. Australian Minister for Rural Health Fiona Nash, who is responsible for government tobacco policy, welcomed the decision.

“Plain packaging is a legitimate public health measure which is consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations,” she said in a statement.

Philip Morris blasted the ruling, saying that Australia had exploited procedural issues to avoid an open discussion about the effectiveness of plain packaging in curbing tobacco consumption.

“There is nothing in today’s ruling that addresses, let alone validates, plain packaging in Australia or anywhere else,” Marc Firestone, Philip Morris International Senior Vice President, said in a press release.

“It is regrettable that the outcome hinged entirely on a procedural issue that Australia chose to advocate instead of confronting head on the merits of whether plain packaging is legal or even works.”

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is currently considering a separate challenge to Australia’s legislation by four member states, and a flurry of challenges by tobacco companies are ongoing as more countries follow Australia’s lead.

The court’s decision would not have any bearing on the WTO case or any of the other legal challenges currently underway.

Companies including Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco Group took the British government to court earlier this month to challenge its plain packaging laws, which take effect next May.

The case will be heard in a six-day hearing at London’s Royal Courts of Justice.