Do Not Let Down The Tobacco Control Efforts – The Kali Controversy

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.3 billion tobacco users globally (smoked or smokeless form), it kills more than 8 million people every year.

(Photo Credit: Instagram)

In the recent controversy surrounding the poster of the documentary Kali, which features a lady smoking a cigarette while dressed as the Goddess Kali and its impact on religious sentiments, the bigger issue of the poster violating the laws governing direct or indirect advertising of tobacco products is getting lost.

While the controversy on freedom of expression and hurting religious sentiments is getting traction and greater media coverage, when viewed through a different prism, the poster has also let down the national and international efforts by public health professionals to control tobacco consumption globally and in particular in India.

According to archaeologists, tobacco use dates back to the first century BC. However, its globalised commercial use began only in the last century. Since then, its consumption has been significantly increasing in spite of alarming health hazards including increased risk of cardiovascular deaths, respiratory diseases, stillbirths, and more than 20 types of cancer including cancer of the lung, oral, larynx, oesophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix and others. In addition to the presence of more than 60 cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes, nicotine’s high level of addiction causes people to become dependent on tobacco use. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.3 billion tobacco users globally (smoked or smokeless form), it kills more than 8 million people every year. To address such a high prevalence of tobacco consumption and its staggering consequences, WHO laid down the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2003 to control tobacco consumption. Studies indicate that aggressive marketing and advertising by the tobacco industry plays an important role in tobacco consumption, one such study points out that adolescents who are exposed to tobacco advertisements are twice as likely to initiate tobacco in later years than adolescents who are not.

To address this, Article 13 of WHO FCTC specifically recommends a ban on the advertisement of tobacco products in order to combat the tobacco epidemic. However, the burden of the diseases caused by tobacco usage is the most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries corresponding to 80% of the world’s tobacco users. India, being one of the largest producers and consumers of tobacco alone, is home to 267 million users.

In consequence, the Government of India has also implemented the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003 (COTPA). The COTPA Section 5 puts a ban on a direct or indirect advertisement that in any way promotes the consumption of any tobacco product.

In addition, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting also enacted the Cable Television Network Act, 1995 which prohibits advertising of tobacco products explicitly on cable television networks. In 2012, expanding the ambit of the COTPA section 5, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare completely prohibited the depiction of tobacco products or their brand as close up in films and on any poster related to any film.

The public health efforts, though, have been rendered fruitless by such instances wherein a goddess is depicted smoking in the name of creative expression. As studies suggest, films can have a significant influence in shaping public attitudes and thus promoting the usage of tobacco products on a large scale. In pursuance of the objectives of COTPA 2003, ‘film rules’ of 2012, also mandated films to display a health warning to viewers where tobacco use is shown as well as demanded an “editorial justification” for on-screen tobacco usage. 

Despite such laws, the poster is nothing but a blatant encouragement for smoking to global public viewers without any indication of health warnings or respect for the tobacco control laws. This indicates the poor implementation of COTPA provisions in the country and the ignorance of the violations by the concerned authorities. 

While communication methods and media are being updated in tandem with time and technological advancements, such as the growing usage of social media and Over The Top (OTT) platforms, the laws are not keeping pace with these developments and are not revised at the same speed par with the advancing technology. The Government has little to no control over the content posted online that targets the masses.

To cater to this gap, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting recently introduced the Code of Ethics under Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 to regulate OTT platforms which have a market of more than 20 crore users in India, comprising of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and many more. Yet the compliance with “film rules” of COTPA 2003 is found to be missing on such platforms.

Regardless of so many laws altogether putting a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertisement, such instances reveal that there is a long way for us to reach our tobacco control goals. Thus, it is salient to not only enforce the laws related to the ban on tobacco advertising but to regulate them strictly as well as make amendments timely to cover all mediums of mass communication including social media and OTTs. Furthermore, to achieve better compliance with the legal provisions, protocols to punish the violators of such public health laws should be strengthened.

The article has been authored by Rupal Jain, Prashant Kumar Singh, Amit Yadav and Shalini Singh. Affiliation: ICMR – National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research, NOIDA; The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), New Delhi

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