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Vivid: Statutory warnings need more punch

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Vivid: Statutory warnings need more punch

Some say it was a victory for the producers of ‘Heroine’, the much-hyped Kareena Kapoor starrer some months ago, while others say the win was actually for the anti-tobacco lobbyists and the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

When the Censor Board saw Heroine, they asked UTV and co-producer Madhur Bhandarkar to run an anti-smoking super during the screening of the film. The producers did not agree and approached the Delhi High Court. The court ruled that when the film was being shown in the cinema halls across the country, Kareena will speak to the filmgoers about the health hazards of smoking in the beginning and during intermission.

Classic case of appeasing both the parties, say what!

I have noticed that such text warnings today are pretty much part of any movie you watch, be it in cinema halls or the television, particularly the foreign-language movie channels. What’s more, a statutory warning against smoking and tobacco use was cleverly tagged with the main script of the hilarious, heart-warming and romantic comedy, ‘Barfi!’ In fact, the voice of Randhir Kapoor – playing the title role of the deaf and mute boy from Darjeeling – is heard only for the warning.

The Indian masses are an impressionable lot. This is a country where movie and sports icons are worshipped – some of the these stars even have temples in their honour – and where a politician has to wear white to signify pure heart and clean intent. Perhaps Randhir mouthing a statutory warning may have some effect.

At the same time, one wonders if a statutory warning that is merely a string of words in white, barely visible to even a pair of eyes with 6 by 6 vision, is more than only toeing a requirement norm.

According to a write-up, ‘Kick Nicotine: Say no to tobacco’, in of the global Society for Science and Nature, graphic health warnings in Canada have already contributed to an overall three per cent drop in smoking rates. The informative document further says that “in India, where some 250 million people consume tobacco, a similar drop in numbers would translate into six million people quitting tobacco use. This, however, is not likely to happen. India’s tobacco warnings are easily the most ineffective in the world and, like the previous ‘Statutory Warning: Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to health’, are not likely to have any impact on smoking rates”.

A survey carried out in 2009 by the ‘Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention’ and published in 2011 gauges the extent of this ineffectiveness.

As per the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (COTPA) (Prohibition of Advertisement & Regulation of Trade & Commerce, Production, and Supply & Distribution) Act, 2003, health warnings must appear on packets, bundles, tins, sachets or any other package of tobacco products. In 2011, both cigarette and ‘gutkha’ makers were given images to include in the statutory warnings. Since then, health warning appearing on tobacco products comprise drawing of scorpion on smokeless form of tobacco and a picture of diseased lungs or a X- ray of lungs with cancer for smoked form of tobacco.

The Journal’s survey was focussed on finding out people’s understanding of the pictures in the warnings. A cross-section of participants from parts of Mumbai comprised the sample. They were shown the statutory warnings with pictures of a) scorpion, symbol for cancer; b) X-ray of diseases lungs; c) a pair of diseased lungs; c) a cancer-eaten human mouth; and d) a sewn-up mouth of a cancer patient.

The findings included:
• Most agreed smoking is injurious to health and that tobacco causes cancer.
• The surveyed agreed it is better to have pictures rather than text warnings, as the unlettered can easily relate pictures with the harm caused by tobacco.
• Majority of the participants said an image is more effective but that needed to be clear and coloured.
• Of the scorpion logo signifying cancer, responses varied from a new brand of tobacco product, a company logo,  decorative modification on a tobacco packet, zodiac sign, slow poison to ‘scorpion inside the packet that will stay inside the mouth’; very few knew the scorpion actually represented cancer. The unlettered could not even associate the picture of scorpion with tobacco.
• The responses to the X-ray of a diseased lung was, at best, hilarious – some said it depicted a waterfall between two mountains, while others likened it to a butterfly, and others, to a hazy shadow of two persons talking to each other. Most could not find any links with the damage tobacco causes to the lungs.
• Majority of the respondents said the images were dull, hazy, unclear and uncoloured. Only the literate could find a link between tobacco, cancer, the pictures and the text warnings.

Evidently, the text statutory warnings over the masses’ favourite actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn, Kareena Kapoor or Vidya Balan blowing smoke onscreen do precious little to scare the ‘janata’ away from the cancer sticks. For, to 25 per cent of the illiterate Indian population, the warnings don’t mean anything and smoking, eating tobacco or chewing ‘paan’, as required by a character in a film, risk being misconstrued as style statements. I feel anti-tobacco combatants have to include harsher methods. And, there has to be government intent.

The Indian government faced flak from many quarters last year for “watering down” the pictorial warnings on cigarette packets depicting smoking risks to health. Activists from the Tobacco Control Lobby (TCL) have alleged, according to ‘Mumbai Mirror’, the city-centric compact from ‘The Times of India’ Group, that the pictorial warnings were “an escape route to ciggie biggies”.

I think that an anti-tobacco warning in India will be able to address the masses across the country, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds, their literacy levels and their religious beliefs, only if it carries disturbing photos, as is the norm in other parts of the world.

Last year in June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United State released nine graphic labels to be printed on cigarette packs, to enhance awareness about the consequences of smoking. The stark, gruesome graphics, accompanied by simple text warnings such as ‘Cigarettes are addictive’, ‘Tobacco smoke can harm your children’, and ‘Cigarettes cause cancer’ is expected to make 213,000 of the nation’s cigarette smokers kick the butt by 2013, as per FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.

The stark, disturbing graphics include that of a man blowing cigarette smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck. Ugh!

The statutory warnings, therefore, against smoking in entertainment segments – like movies – in India is good but as of now, not enough. Instead of hysterically opposing shots in flicks which warrant the characters to smoke, it would do well for the Censor Board and the government to head-bang on more pronounced methods to fight against cancer. One understands that unlike other literate parts of the world, there’s a divide yet to emerge between the reel and real life here. But then, don’t just put up a statutory warning against tobacco use for the sake of it! Make it more effective, for the masses’ sake!

Tags Vivid Annurag Batra exchange4media Smoking Statutory Warning Censor Board of Film Certification

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