Federal Minister Pranab Mukherjee who had headed a Ministerial Committee to debate on the use of the pictorial symbol on tobacco products, had last week introduced a Legislative Bill in the Parliament to amend the Cigarette and Tobacco Products Act, 2003 which mandates the use of the 'Skull and Bones' symbol to wean away tobacco users on the grounds that the symbol offends religious sensibilities.
The rules for using the pictorial warning were notified on July 5, 2006 and were to come into effect from February 1 this year. Due to representations from the tobacco industry, the date of implementation was put off to June 1, which too passed.
The latest decision to backtrack on this notification, which was issued as part of the World Health Organisation's framework convention on tobacco control, had raised the hackles of the Federal Health Minister Anbumani S Ramadoss and several anti-tobacco advocacy groups. Even on Sunday, Ramadoss reiterated his commitment to push forward the anti-tobacco agenda.
Earlier, N Chandrababu Naidu, leader of the Telugu Desam Party in the South Indian State of Andhra Pradesh had campaigned against the use the pictorial symbol arguing that it would eventually render thousands of workers in beedi manufacturing units jobless.
However, a survey conducted among a sample population of 1001 persons, largely comprising followers of Hinduism and Islam in 16 localities in Mumbai and its suburbs by the Mumbai-based Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health has found that a huge per cent of them had responded in the negative when asked: "If you see the 'Skull and Bones' symbol placed on a tobacco product to indicate the risk associated with it, would it affect your religious sensibilities?" Significantly, 89.8 per cent of the Muslims surveyed and 87.2 per cent Hindus had replied "No" to the question. Nine per cent of the sample population was undecided in its verdict.
"The survey was undertaken to principally study the public perception regarding the prospective use of specific symbols on tobacco products with reference to their religious sensibilities. The latest Legislative Bill is based on the groundless argument of religious sentiments being affected.
We hope the findings of this study will be a message to the Indian Parliament to implement the pictorial warning rule without any further delay and dilution to protect the health of the poor Indians who cannot read the statutory text warnings," said Payal B. Shah, program analyst, Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health.
Virtually endorsing the 'Skull and Bones' symbol as a warning sign, 87 per cent of the respondents felt that it denoted danger and therefore they would have understood the threat associated with using the product on which the symbol is printed.
In another survey conducted among cancer patients at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, all patients replied that if the 'Skull and Bones' symbol was there on tobacco products, they would have understood the imminent health hazard better, a message that was not effectively conveyed by the statutory warning "Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to Health" that is found on all tobacco packets.
"It is clear from this study that the tobacco industry wants the 'Skull and Bones' symbol to be out because this sign will most effectively convey the danger of tobacco to the Indian population and not because it hurts any religious sentiment," contended Dr Prakash Gupta, director (research) at the Healis-Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health.
On an earlier occasion, Dr K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, was quoted as saying that "pictorial warnings are necessary for the Indian population where most consumers have low levels of literacy and education."