It was April 1 and it was no joke. As the new financial year dawned, Indian cigarette makers suspended production over what they said was ambiguity in the government’s new health warning rules for cigarette packs. The new rules, applicable from April 1, mandate that 85 per cent of a cigarette pack’s surface should be covered in health warnings. The earlier limit was 40 per cent. The industry association, Tobacco Institute of India has called the new rules drastic and impractical. It has written to the Ministry of Health seeking clarification on the ambiguity. It did not elaborate on what was ambiguous about the new rules.
It is estimated that the production halt would cost the industry $53 million (Rs 350 crore) a day. The halt in production is not likely to have immediate impact on the market as existing stocks could last a couple of weeks. However, if the halt continues it could lead to increase in retail prices and increased demand for illegal cigarettes.
The implementation of stringent pack warning rules was delayed by a year as a parliamentary panel sought time to assess how the industry would be impacted. The panel issued a report last month saying the size of warnings should be 50% of the display area on both sides, instead of 85% in the interest of the industry and tobacco farmers. It termed the proposed display as too harsh and will result in flooding of illicit cigarettes in the country. The panel suggested stress on education generation programmes that have been proved to be more effective.
Health activists had criticised the panel for favouring the industry. Smoking kills about 1 million people in India annually. It is to be remembered that tobacco consumption pattern in India is unique. Legal cigarettes account for just 11% of overall tobacco consumed in India. The balance consumption is accounted for by traditional products like chewing tobacco and bidis (shredded tobacco wrapped in a particular leaf and tied with a string), which have lower tobacco content than cigarettes but more nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide.