India has emerged as a global leader in raising awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco consumption by implementing regulations for anti-tobacco warnings on over-the-top (OTT) platforms. The Union Health Ministry has issued new rules stating that strict action will be taken if online content publishers fail to comply with these regulations. These rules mandate that OTT platforms display anti-tobacco warning messages, similar to those seen in theaters and on television, in observance of World No Tobacco Day on May 31st.
According to the Ministry's notification, an interministerial committee comprising representatives from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology will take action, either suo motu or upon receiving a complaint, against publishers of online curated content who fail to comply with the rules. The committee will identify the publisher, issue a notice, provide a reasonable opportunity to explain the non-compliance, and require appropriate modifications to the content.
Tobacco addiction is recognized as the leading cause of preventable death and disability worldwide. Each year, millions of people die due to tobacco use. Binoy Mathew, a program manager at the Voluntary Health Association of India, praised India's pioneering step in regulating tobacco promotion through the entertainment medium, stating that it positions India as a world champion in this regard.
India has a significant share in global tobacco-related deaths, with nearly 1.35 million deaths annually. It is also the second-largest consumer and producer of tobacco, and out of the 8 million global deaths attributed to tobacco each year, 1.35 million occur in India.
Mathew emphasized the well-established link between tobacco use and morbidity and mortality, citing the government's enactment of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) as a beneficial legislation to discourage tobacco use. The legislation aimed to eliminate all direct and indirect tobacco advertisements.
The theme for this year's World No Tobacco Day is "We need food, not tobacco." The global campaign for 2023 seeks to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers, encouraging them to grow sustainable and nutritious crops. It also aims to expose the tobacco industry's efforts to obstruct attempts to replace tobacco cultivation with sustainable crops, thereby contributing to the global food crisis.
Mathew further explained that the tobacco industry's strategy is to target children and promote tobacco use, as evident from their advertisements. The ban on tobacco advertisements under COTPA resulted in a surge in tobacco use scenes depicted in entertainment media, including product placements featuring clear images of tobacco brands.
The new guidelines on cigarettes and other tobacco products will be enforced within three months of their publication in the Official Gazette. As per the notifications, every publisher of online curated content will be required to display tobacco products and their use, along with anti-tobacco health spots lasting at least thirty seconds each, at the beginning and middle of their programs.
The publishers must also display a prominent static message at the bottom of the screen during the display of tobacco products or their use, along with an audio-visual disclaimer highlighting the ill-effects of tobacco use for a minimum of twenty seconds each at the beginning and middle of the program. The health spots, messages, and disclaimers should be made available to the publisher on their website.
The language used in the anti-tobacco health warning messages, health spots, and audio-visual disclaimers should match the language used in the online curated content. The display of tobacco products or their use in such content should not extend to showing cigarette or tobacco brand names or any form of tobacco product placement. Additionally, the display of tobacco products or their use in promotional materials is also prohibited.
In 2012, after years of litigation involving the film industry, the government implemented a law regulating the depiction of tobacco products and their use in films and television. The rise in popularity of streaming platforms, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and among teenagers, raised concerns regarding the frequent portrayal of smoking scenes involving school-age characters and the mockery of tobacco control laws and their purpose.
With the new notification, the government has put an end to blatant instances of tobacco promotion through OTT platforms. The law now mandates the inclusion of anti-tobacco disclaimers, health warning messages, and health spots whenever tobacco products or their use are displayed in OTT programs. The rules also prohibit tobacco product placement and the depiction of tobacco or its use in promotional materials. This significant step taken by the government serves the public health interest, protecting the vulnerable age group of children from the dangers of tobacco and upholding the fundamental right to health for all individuals.
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