During the World Health Organization's regional meet in Dilli, East Timor, India's delay in implementing larger pictorial warnings on packs of tobacco products came up for criticism as delegates assessed tobacco-control measures by countries in the region.
WHO's framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC) has implemented 40% pictorial warning on both sides of packs. "India, being an important member and such a large country, has only 40% on one side," said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director (South East Asia).
J P Nadda, India's health minister was absent at 68th South East Asia Regional Committee meeting. Domestic engagements was cited as the reason for Nadda's absence. India was represented by a senior official of the ministry at the meeting of the highest decision-making body of WHO for the region.
The health ministry of India's decision to defer implementation of larger pictorial warnings had upset several public health groups. "It requires political will. All other countries in the region have set example by prescribing warnings up to 90% on both sides. India being an important player in the region has shown poor performance," said a senior WHO official advocating for stronger provisions to control advertising and marketing of tobacco products.
Emphasizing that India is a signatory to FCTC which mandates tobacco control measures, Khetrapal Singh said, "We advise countries on what they should be doing for good health of their people and then leave it to them to either follow our advice or if they choose not to. These are countries which are signatories to a resolution that was adopted in the World Health Assembly. Respecting their sovereign right, we leave it to them to now implement whatever they themselves have adopted." She said tobacco use is an important "risk factor for non communicable diseases" and hence high on WHO's agenda.
Dili has the highest percentage of tobacco consumers in the region. Delaying larger pictorial warnings is likely to have a serious impact on the health of those who are less educated and poor, say experts. Recently, a study by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland revealed about 46% of illiterate men smoke, while only 16% of college graduates are hooked to tobacco. For the uneducated, larger pictorial warnings could be a way to create awareness about the dangers of tobacco use.