In an attempt to counter rising tobacco addiction among young people, the health ministry issued a notification on Thursday making it mandatory for health warnings to occupy 85% of the space on cigarette packets from April.  That's a sound idea. Research conducted around the world suggests that potential smokers can be scared away by graphic depictions of throat cancers on cigarette packs, and by prominent health advisories.

In 2007, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that more than 90% of the Canadian youth agreed that picture warnings on cigarette packages increased their awareness about the adverse effects of tobacco use and made "smoking seems less attractive".

Two years later, a similar study conducted in France by the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project came to a similar conclusion. Sixty nine per cent of smokers said that they had noticed the warnings, and half of them admitted to thinking “a lot” about their habit after seeing the graphics on the packs.

Curtailing tobacco use

Thus far, India has not been very effective in using warnings to curtail tobacco use.  Just last month, a report  by the Canadian Cancer Society assessed the proportion of health warnings on cigarette packets around the world and placed India at the 136th position. Presented at a World Health Organisation conference, the report downgraded India from 123 last year.

Other South Asian have been more stringent in issuing health warnings and pictorial messages on packages. Nepal ranks No 4, for instance, and Sri Lanka is at No 13.

The chart below depicts the amount of space on cigarette packages taken up by health warnings in our adjacent neighboring countries. Clearly, India has a lot of catching up to do.

Cancer is the cause of 6%-7% of all adult deaths in India and cigarette smoking is the cause of one-third of all the cancer cases diagnosed. The International Tobacco Control Policy report estimates that India could record 1.5 million tobacco-related deaths every year by 2020, up from the 1.2 million deaths annually estimated by The Lancet in 2012.

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said that he hoped the new regulations would help curtail tobacco addiction among young people. “These are part of stringent rules introduced to lower tobacco addiction among the young, such as increasing the legal age for tobacco use to 21 years,” he said.

The government has also moved ahead to ban the sale, manufacture and use of e-cigarettes since they are not approved under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. The devices are marketed as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes but studies have shown that they are not entirely safe.

The move seems to have come at the right time since India is home to 275 million smokers and 94% of them say they have no intention of quitting.