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Picture-Based Cigarette Warnings: India Balks, Canada Drags Forward

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The Indian government has delayed putting graphic health warnings on cigarette packs for a year, The L.A. Times reported Dec. 13. Meanwhile, a Canadian legislative committee approved similar pictorial warnings starting next month, the Toronto Sun reported Dec. 14.

According to the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation, 241 million Indians consume tobacco, and about 1 million die from it each year. A survey conducted in 2010 found that the pictorial health warnings were effective at reducing use.

“Most of our population is illiterate and can’t read warnings,” said Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, who directs the Voluntary Health Association of India. “Pictorial warnings are the most cost-effective and impactful way of warning these people.”

The Indian government had planned to implement the warnings on Dec. 1, after delaying their introduction last March. Last week’s decision put off the warnings for another year, and health advocates say that tobacco companies are responsible.

A week ago, two of India’s biggest cigarette manufacturers stopped production, which the companies linked to “’lack of clarity’ on pictorial warnings,” the L.A. Times said.

Advocates said that the companies “have made the government do what was beneficial to them and have made the government sidestep the issue of public health,” Mukhopadhyay said.

In Canada, the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, had previously refused to agree to a deadline for release of new graphic warnings proposed for cigarette packs. The health department had developed and tested the warnings over the course of seven years.

Public health advocates said that Aglukkaq had not moved ahead with the warnings because of pressure from Big Tobacco. Members of a legislative health committee then voted to require Aglukkaq to implement warnings by Jan. 17. 

At the same time, the committee rejected a more stringent plan that would have specified larger warnings covering three-quarters of each pack, the inclusion of information on a tobacco cessation line, and more. 

“We’re not in bed with Big Tobacco,” Aglukkaq said.

She voiced support for the larger warnings, but had not made a decision about them. “I have been examining the labelling … and I have not shelved that project.”

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