DELHI-- Cigarette packs and chewing tobacco pouches in several countries have varied images of blackened lungs, aborted fetuses, rotting teeth and gums. Opinion on the street is divided on how far these have prevented people from buying cigarettes.
“In my 11 years, I have only seen cigarette sales only increase. Prices have gone up several times,” says Ramesh Chaurasia, who sells cigarettes in Delhi. “Some cigarettes cost almost three times from what they did 6-7 years ago but people still buy it.”
A study published in The Indian Journal of Public Health says that more uneducated users in India find current pictorial warnings don’t motivate them to quit. But cigarette sellers in Delhi don’t see much difference between their educated and uneducated clientele.
Ram Prashad, 62, a private security guard has been smoking beedis for the last 50 years. “All the people in my family used to smoke beedis,” he says. “As a child, I saw parents and grandmother smoke them.”
“The beedi packets now come with a scorpion, and says that it can cause cancer, but I still smoke it,” Prashad continues. “I spend about Rs 100 ($2) a month on beedis.”
Rohit Gupta, a 26-year-old banker, also says that he is well aware of the health dangers associated with cigarettes. Gupta adds that he is not addicted to smoking but has a couple to bust work-related stress. “It’s hectic,” he says.
Some observers argue that when smoke-free teens grow into young professionals, they are pulled into smoking due to work-related pressures. Gupta describes it as the “best networking tool.”
Chaurasia says that selling cigarettes to people below the age of 18 is barred but nobody asks for identification to avoid losing customers. The impact of scary images are diluted in India because smokers can buy single cigarettes instead of a whole pack. Selling single cigarettes in several European countries and the United States is illegal. Young people, low on cash, usually opt for the buying singles.
“Putting a scary picture on the packet may help, but I am not sure how much,” says Chaurasia. “People just tell me the brand name and I take it out and give it (singles) to them.”
Sanjay Kumar, 14, attends school during the day and then he helps his parents run their small business of ironing clothes. Kumar says most of his friends smoke cigarettes and he has also tried a few times. “Smoking makes me look like a man, he says.
Anti-smoking activists blame this on snazzy advertising like brightly colored pack with catchy slogans. They want to eliminate any possibility of a cigarette box look enticing for young people by introducing plain packs with amplified health advisory images.
The Australia-India Institute Taskforce on Tobacco Control on July 23 released a policy document that says despite advertising and sponsorship bans on tobacco firms, the package itself continues to be a potent tool to promote brands, lure new users, and retain existing ones.
The Taskforce makes a case for plain packaging legislation to remove extraneous colours, embossing and misleading elements on tobacco packs, thus eliminating the “badge value” of all forms of tobacco product packaging. It suggests that brand and product names can be used in a standardized, prescribed style, font and color.
The Taskforce presents research that shows plain packaging would help in reducing the appeal of the tobacco pack to prevent experimentation and initiation of tobacco use among children and youth.
India has nearly 274.9 million tobacco users, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey. Tobacco-related diseases kill almost one million people every year in the country. “Plain packaging of tobacco in India is a vital means to halting the enormous killing power of the tobacco transnational corporations,” says Rob Moodie, Professor in Public Health, University of Melbourne.
Kumar, the student, doesn’t prefer any particular brand. He usually tells the shopkeeper to give him a cigarette that costs Rs. 3 ($1 is approximately Rs. 50). But when shown the photograph of an ulcer-infected face, which could potentially be on a plain pack, Kumar looks pensive. “If this the effect then I won’t smoke,” he says.
Pranay Goswami, a 20-year-old college student, says that plain packaging with scary images can help. Goswami recalls that he began smoking when he was 12-years-old. “We smoked to make a style statement, nobody told us that cigarettes were harmful for us or it could cause cancer, he says. “Now I know, and therefore I gave up smoking a few months back.”
Goswami, however, describes the current image of blackened lungs on cigarettes packs in India as ineffective. In fact, he says, the image has become a joke because it resembles British footballer John Terry. “But a more graphic image will definitely help especially if it easily conveys that smoking cigarette will lead to a painful and horrible death,” he says. “Proper labeling and pictorial warnings can help prevent teenagers from picking up the cancer stick.”
Incidentally, the Indian government is replacing that image after Terry threatened to sue.
Australia is the first country to introduce plain packaging legislation, which goes into force on December 2012. “Australia is leading the way by introducing plain packaging as a powerful legislation to counter this industry tactic” says Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India.
But four tobacco companies are already fighting this legislation in Australia’s high court.
The United Kingdom and New Zealand is also debating whether to adopt similar plain packaging. “They got me at the age of 13,” Deborah Taffler, a brand and packaging specialist, writes in the Guardian. “Back then their quest for my attention started with advertising, but it was the slim silvery green pack perfectly complementing my other accessories that coerced me into an addiction that took 25 years to break.”
Taffler also highlights this video by the Cancer Research UK where primary school children discuss cigarette packs. “Its really bright colors,” says one primary school student. “I think it would be quite fun to play with…it almost makes you happy by just looking at it.”
“This one actually looks pretty,” says one young girl. “Pink Pink Pink,” another one joins in. “It looks girly…I just like it,” says another kid.
Images: Betwa Sharma/ Google images from http://www.nepalmelbourne.com and www.sbs.com.au