Some thoughts on smoking awareness in India

Last week I went to see the movie Gentleman with my co-interns Meghana and Mallory. All in all the movie was great, but what I noticed were the antismoking videos that were shown before the movie and during the interval in between part one and two of the movie. It was a straightforward video. A father was watching TV with her daughter and decided to light a cigarette. On the TV there is a scene playing out of a doctor treating a patient who has developed symptoms from smoking. The daughter looks disapprovingly at his father for smoking. The dad then puts out the cigarette and the video ends with statements on the dangers of smoking. The video made me think about how laws on smoking awareness are more progressive in India than in the United States.

While watching the movie, whenever there was a scene in which an actor was smoking, the bottom right hand corner of the screen would say, “smoking kills.” This is required for all films screened in India. I think this is extremely important, given that different venues of media, particularly movies, tend to characterize smoking as a character trait that exemplifies “being cool.” According to the World Health Organization, the pairing of good guys in movies using tobacco or smoking has actually gone up to 53% since the 1990s. Within the U.S. there are similar efforts to make the dangers of smoking more visible within the media. The Smoke-Free Movies project is currently leading an effort to require that all movies that have a scene in which a character is smoking be given an R rating when screened in theaters. Supposedly, this type of rating would push parents to more often speak to their children on the dangers of smoking. The goal is to continue the social awareness of the dangers that smoking brings. India’s success in increasing the visibility of these dangers is something the U.S. should model its efforts after.

Pictorial warnings are also required on the labels of all packages containing tobacco sold in India. The law requires that these pictorial warnings take up 40% of the package. I first noticed this when we went out to lunch with our boss, Chitra. After lunch she suggested we try this snack that was being sold right outside the restaurant. The guy selling the food had a small booth set up outside. In the booth I noticed that each packet of chewing tobacco had a picture of grey lungs, damaged by the carcinogens in tobacco with the caption, “tobacco causes cancer.” The picture was unsettling, which is exactly what the point of the pictorial warning is. You’re supposed to see the damaging effects of tobacco every time you purchase a product with it. I think its effectiveness is in the shock value, something the required labeling on U.S. cigarette packages lack. Although the United States was the first country to require health warnings on it’s labeling, passing the law in 1966, the visibility requirements of these health warnings are very minimal. Health warnings are usually placed in small print on the side of cigarette packaging and there isn’t a requirement of an image, such as damaged lungs, that demonstrate the harmful effects of tobacco. Usually, these warnings are printed in a way that camouflages into the normal packaging of the tobacco product.

The U.S. should follow the precedent set by countries, such as India, that utilize clear and large visuals that accurately demonstrate which risks the act of smoking carries. In the past, companies that sell tobacco products in the U.S. have done little to ensure this. In fact, tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company were actually accused of using its famous mascot Joe Camel as a marketing technique that was actually reaching children rather than its adult user customer base. The U.S. should begin to consider enacting laws that increase the responsibility of tobacco companies in alerting customers of the risks that come with using their products.

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About Alexi Chacon

Class of 2019, majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Intern at Shahi Exports in Bangalore, India in summer 2016.