Anti-tobacco campaigners in India are calling for the country to follow Australia’s lead on plain packaging for cigarettes.
India is the second largest tobacco producing nation in the world and 1 million Indians die each year from cancer caused by smoking and chewing tobacco.
After lengthy court battles the Indian government has now introduced mandatory health warnings on tobacco packets, but health advocates say they’re weak.
Dr Ranga Rao, an Oncologist working in Delhi, says he sees some alarming cases.
“I remember a 21-year-old young girl who has been smoking from the age of 13 and she has grown up in the atmosphere of smoking – her parents used to smoke,” he said.
“So she picked up the smoking and she died of lung cancer at the age of 22 and a half.
“Fifty per cent of the people pick up the habit at the age of 12 to 15 years.”
One third of Indians use tobacco – about 400 million people.
It’s estimated the cost of treating tobacco related illness is more than $US5 billion a year.
Cigarettes, chewing tobacco and beedis, known as the poor man’s cigarette are all cheap and readily available to people of all ages.
Dr Monika Arora from the Public Health Foundation of India has done a survey of tobacco users and says the results are worrying.
She says despite the health warnings, many smokers – including children – still find the cigarette packaging appealing.
“They did say that the packs were very, very attractive for them, to the extent that when they looked at one of the pack, they were not sure if it is a candy or a cigarette pack,” she said.
An opposition MP has introduced a private members bill into the Indian parliament calling for logos and company branding to be totally removed from tobacco products.
Dr Arora says it’s based on plain packaging legislation passed in Australia last year.
“For Australia it was a big battle because they didn’t have a precedent to follow but for any country that is following, now it’s easier,” she said.
An Australian study has shown plain packaging makes smokers think about quitting more often.
The Indian legislation is yet to be debated in parliament and supporters of it are predicting staunch opposition from the tobacco industry.
Dr Arora says some politicians are also likely to oppose the changes.
“They have constituencies which are predominantly rolling beedis, so there is an interest why they should protect beedis, why they should protect tobacco products, smoking products,” she said..
The ABC asked India’s two biggest tobacco companies – Godfrey Philips, which is part owned by Phillip Morris and the Indian Tobacco Company – for comment on the legislation.
Neither company responded to the request.