In the first five days of April, an estimated 13,500 people died of tobacco-related diseases in India – roughly one death every 32 seconds. In the same period, the six biggest tobacco companies in the world made a profit of more than Rs 400,000 lakh – approximately Rs 87,000 per second.

These figures, calculated on the basis of research by, are at the forefront of a new social media campaign to push the Indian government to implement new pictorial warnings on tobacco product packaging.

The campaign, called "Answer Sunita", was launched on Sunday by anti-tobacco organisations World Lung Foundation and Voices of Tobacco Victims, with Sunita Tomar – the recently-deceased victim of tobacco-related oral cancer – as its face.

Tomar, who was featured in a prominent public service announcement against tobacco use, died at the age of 28 on April 1 – the same day that India was supposed to implement new graphic warnings on tobacco product packaging that would cover 85% of the surface of every pack.

The health ministry, however, chose to defer initiative after Dilip Gandhi, the head of a parliamentary panel examining the issue, claimed there was no original Indian research to prove that tobacco use causes cancer. (There is plenty.) Another member of the panel, Shyam Charan Gupta, has his own beedi business with an annual turnover of Rs 250 crore, but he denied any conflict of interest.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the hopes for health activists by assuring them that the government would take a responsible decision about new packaging design norms for tobacco products and spoke of removing anyone with conflicting interests from the parliamentary panel examining the issue.

Death clock

The Answer Sunita campaign is an attempt to keep the pressure on Modi by reminding the Central government of an appeal Sunita Tomar made just before she died in Madhya Pradesh. Two days before she passed away, Tomar wrote a letter to the prime minister expressing her disappointment at panel head Dilip Gandhi’s comments and urging the government to insist on larger graphic warnings on tobacco packaging.

The campaign asks social media users to reach out to Modi through Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, with the message: “#Answer Sunita and put children’s health over tobacco industry profits. Pass 85% pack warnings now."

“The online campaign is a component of a larger campaign that will continue till the government fulfils its promise of increasing the size of the graphic warnings,” said Nandita Murukutla, the country director for India at the World Lung Foundation. “The link between tobacco and cancer and has been established through a lot of research and statements contradicting that are baseless and hurtful to the people who suffer from tobacco-related illnesses.”

A prominent part of the campaign is the death clock – the real time ticker clocking the estimated number of tobacco-related deaths in India since April 1. It is juxtaposed with the profits being racked up by the six leading tobacco companies every second.

“The clock depicts the real consequences of tobacco use that Sunita Tomar represents,” said Murukutla.

Effective in low-literacy countries

Nearly 10 lakh Indians die from the effects of tobacco use every year, the World Lung Foundation said. It notes that the use of various forms of tobacco has actually increased in the country, with more than 12 crore adults and 25 lakh children using tobacco products every day.

Large pictorial warnings on packaging, depicting the health consequences of tobacco use in graphic detail, have proved to be highly effective in deterring young people from using tobacco in other parts of the world, particularly in countries with low literacy rates. Such warnings are also recognised internationally as the most cost-effective means for a government to control tobacco use, because packaging expenses are borne by the industry.

“The government needs to realise that tobacco control is good for the health of the country, because it is not helpful to have a large population of youth who are sick and dying,” said Murukutla.