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IT will now be compulsory for packs of cigarettes, bidis and chewing tobacco to carry pictorial warning to discourage tobacco consumption even though the controversial ‘skull and cross bones’ image is optional.

According to a player in the tobacco industry, the introduction of compulsory pictorial consumption will inflate manufacturing and packaging costs of the cigarette industry by at least 20%. Say Nita Kapoor, executive VP (marketing) of Godfrey Phillips India (GPI): “Re-packaging all products will involve a onetime operational cost of at least 20%. “We are not yet sure, but it’s unlikely that the additional manufacturing cost will be passed on to the consumer,” Ms Kapoor added.

The bill that pictorial warning on tobacco products be implemented on all tobacco packs by October 1, has been passed by the Lok Sabha. However, the controversial bill, which has been contested by various political parties, stated that skull and cross bones pictorial warnings are ‘optional’.

“We are not clear what optional means. The context is not clear, whether displaying pictorial warnings are optional, or whether the skull and bones image is optional. With less than four weeks to go, we don’t yet know what exactly needs to be implemented on the packs,” says Ms Kapoor. Added an ITC spokesperson: “We will comply with the legislation. But it is not yet clear what form of pictorial warning has to be implemented on packs.”

The tobacco manufacturers association, meanwhile, has criticised the bill, stating that the step, if made mandatory, would be an extreme one. Said Ashok Aggarwal, the association’s spokesperson and also MD of Gopal Group, the country’s largest manufacturer of chewing tobacco: “The skull and bones warning is typically a sign of poison, and the government should not equate tobacco products with poison. Initially, the government should implement bolder written warning and let consumers and industry gets familiar with it, and gradually move on to a pictorial warning.”

The bidi industry, on the other hand, had been lobbying aggressively to exempt itself from the law on pictorial warnings, on grounds that the move could have an adverse impact on labourers engaged in bidi packaging. The controversial bill was objected to by various political parties backing the bidi industry, following which the government decided to make pictorial warnings optional instead of mandatory. Anbumani Ramadoss, health minister, had earlier announced that pictorial warnings of a skull and cross bones and the photograph of a dead person be implemented on all tobacco products. The law was to come into effect starting June 1, this year. However, buckling under pressure from the government and political parties backing the bidi industry, the decision was deferred. Following that, the government set up a Group of Ministers, headed by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who had said that skull and cross bones would hurt religious sentiments of certain sections of society.

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