Rubbishing claims of the tobacco industry, anti-tobacco activists say there is no evidence to suggest that the introduction of large size pictorial warnings on tobacco packets have an adverse effect on the livelihood of tobacco workers or tobacco growers.

Both the cigarette and beedi industry in the country have stopped production over the enforcement of pictorial warnings covering 85% of packet of tobacco product. In its notification issued on September 24, 2015, under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Rules 2014, the Centre had stipulated that tobacco products manufactured from April 1, 2016 onwards will carry pictorial warnings covering 85 per cent of the display area on the packet.

"The extreme 85% Warnings will promote illegal cigarette trade and adversely affect the livelihood of 45.7 million people dependent on tobacco which included farmers, labour, workers, trade and others," said the Tobacco Institute of India, a representative body of all stakeholders related to the tobacco industry, in a statement.

But this claim was contested by activists. “There is no evidence of decrease in employment – from tendu pluckers, bidi rollers, paan wallahs – since pack warnings were introduced in 2010," said Binoy Matthew, Senior Programme Officer, Voluntary Health Association of India, a Delhi-based non-profit that has worked with beedi workers. "The production of tendu, bidi tobacco, bidis and cigarettes has increased every year since 2010,” he said.

“Experience from other countries have shown that decreases in consumption is usually a gradual process," Matthew added. "Such a gradual decrease will allow ample time for the Government, tobacco growers and bidi workers to adjust to market changes and seek alternative means of livelihood.”

There is enough evidence to show that the bidi industry is highly exploitative, especially towards women who constitute 76% of the workforce and also illegally employs children (about 15% of the tobacco workforce as per government estimates). The incidence of asthma and tuberculosis is higher among bidi workers than in other groups of people, The Factory Advisory Services and Labor Institute in Bombay, a unit of the Labor Ministry of India, found.

Pictorial warnings are more effective than text-only warnings, research shows. “Studies show that more people quit using tobacco if the warnings are bigger. It increases receptivity and understanding of the message,” said Dr PC Gupta, director of Healis- Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, Navi Mumbai.

The reason for the industry’s decision to stop production is not very clear. The Tobacco Institute of India claimed “ambiguity” on the new notification in their press release. It also alleged that the tobacco control policies were directed by non-profits and anti-tobacco lobbyists “who are funded by overseas vested interests.”

Peculiar claims

The bidi manufacturers seem to have a peculiar problem. It is physically impossible to follow the notification, said Arjun Khanna, member of All India Bidi Industry Federation, claiming the labels do not fit onto the conical packs of bidi. “While we understand the agenda of the government to increase awareness about the health risks, we literally cannot follow the law," Khanna said. "It is difficult to implement this as our packets are packaged by hand”.

But, the warnings had been pre-tested on dummy beedi packs earlier, and can be complied with easily, said many of the activists spoke to.

Some states have already started cracking down on the manufacture, distribution and selling of the older packets of tobacco. On April 4, the Vigilance department of Maharashtra state Food and Drug Administration seized cigarettes worth Rs 2.73 billion. In Goa, cigarettes worth Rs 8.63 crores were seized on April 7.

Livelihood of farmers is an issue which is brought up each time the government attempts to regulate the tobacco industry. The workers are the ultimate scapegoats in this bargain, said anti-tobacco activists.

“The industry makes huge profits which hardly trickles down to the workers. Instead, the industry uses them as pawns while seeking less regulation,” said Gupta.