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The World Health Organisation has said the economic burden attributable to tobacco-related diseases is a staggering Rs 1,04,500 crore annually in the country and has pitched for large-size warnings on packs to control tobacco consumption in a cost-effective manner. "The economic burden attributable to tobacco-related diseases is a staggering Rs 1,04,500 crore annually in the country, while human cost nearly a million deaths," WHO representative in New Delhi Henk Bekedam said in a statement. Calling for large and prominent health warnings on the packs of tobacco products, he said past experiences have shown that this is "a cost-effective means of increasing public awareness about the health effects of tobacco use and in reducing tobacco consumption". Besides, he termed the ongoing debate on reducing the size of warnings on tobacco products, especially on bidis and smokeless tobacco as "worrisome." India implemented Article 11 of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) a few years back, but is still not FCTC-compliant for this provision as the tobacco pack warnings occupy only 40 per cent of the principal display area only on one side of the pack - that makes up 20 per cent of the total display area of the pack. The Supreme Court is hearing a bunch of petitions on ordering large size warnings on the packs. In terms of the health warnings on tobacco products packages, the country fares very badly with a ranking of 136 out of 198 countries in the international status report on Cigarette Package Health Warnings 2014. Countries ranked after 143 do not display pictorial health warnings at all. He warned that "any reduction in the size of pack warnings will be a great setback for public health in the region, as neighboring countries, including Nepal (90 per cent), Thailand (85 per cent), Pakistan (85 per cent), Sri Lanka (80 per cent) and most recently Myanmar (75 per cent) have overcome similar challenges and notified large pictorial warnings". As per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey-India (GATS 2010) covering the age group 15 and above, 71 per cent of cigarette smokers notice health warnings on packages and 38 per cent think of quitting because of the warning label. In case of bidi smokers, as many as 62 per cent of notice health warnings on the packs and 29 per cent think of quitting due to the warning. When it comes to the consumers of smokeless tobaccos, 63 per cent of them notice health warnings on the package and 34 per cent think of quitting due to the warning label, he said.

Prominent pack warnings also assist in reducing illicit trade and improve tax administration as these products are easy to distinguish from those which do not conform, Bekedam said. On October 15, 2014, the government had issued a notification making it mandatory for tobacco companies to display graphic health warning occupying 85 per cent of the principal display area of all tobacco packs. The gazette notification amending the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules, 2008, which came into effect from April 1, 2015, is now scheduled to come into force on April 1, 2016. Bekedam said the implementation will uphold the announcement made by the country in Moscow in 2014, during the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. He also batted for higher taxes on tobacco, saying along with large graphic pack warnings, taxation has been a cost-effective and evidence-based strategy to reduce tobacco use. Moreover, he said both these measures are easy to implement, with no cost to the government as tobacco taxation as a fiscal policy is a win-win situation as it not only raises revenue but also reduces consumption. As the country will be hosting the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) this November, Bekedam said implementation of 85 per cent pictorial warnings on both sides of packs and developing a comprehensive tobacco tax policy will uphold New Delhi's position as a global leader in health and save precious lives, he said. 


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