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India’s Ministry of Health has announced that pictorial health warnings covering 85 percent of the display surface of all tobacco products will now be introduced in April 2016.

First issued in October last year, this bold directive to protect public health has been significantly delayed after a parliamentary committee led by the ruling party controversially stated that no studies from India link tobacco use to cancer.

This week’s breakthrough comes after the High Court of Rajasthan ruled in favour of the 85 percent warnings, in the interest of protecting health. This has led to the notification to print the new packs in April 2016.

“We welcome the decision of the Indian Government to implement 85 percent pack warnings on all tobacco products from April next year, especially in the face of increasing tobacco industry interference,” said Dr Rana Singh, The Union’s Regional Advisor for tobacco control in South East Asia. “This policy is proven to prevent young people taking up tobacco use, and encourages smokers to quit. There is an urgent need for such measures in our country which witnesses more than one million tobacco-related deaths each year.”

Graphic health warnings are particularly effective in countries with low literacy rates, or multiple languages, and can be a vital source of education. It has also been found that smokers underestimate the health risks associated with smoking – graphic health warnings can help de-bunk any myths. India currently has around 275 million tobacco users.

“We understand that the Government of India will again come under pressure from the tobacco industry and from major financial players, but we urge them to honour the April 2016 deadline and continue to prioritise the health of the people,” said Dr Ehsan Latif, Director of The Union’s Department of Tobacco Control.

At present India fulfils the minimum requirements for FCTC legislation on tobacco packaging, covering just 40 percent of one side of the pack. The new legislation requires 60 percent coverage with a graphic warning and 25 percent with a written warning. Manufacturers must use a series of designs pre-tested for impact.

When announced last year, India’s strong new policy sparked a regional movement, with Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka issuing notifications for increased graphic warnings soon after. The then Minister of Health, Dr Harsh Vardhan was praised by the global public health community for his leadership as a result.

The Union supports tobacco control initiatives in more than 250 districts in 24 states across India, covering a population of around 400 million, as part of the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use. Union experts provide technical assistance and expertise for the development and implementation of new laws, capacity-building, and monitoring and evaluation of interventions.

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