Tobacco: The Silent Killer

[op-ed snap] Public health versus free speech


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Benefits of pictorial warnings and challenges

History of the fight against Tobacco

  1. It is ten years since U.S. Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, but now, the Food and Drug Administration issued a rule that pictorial warnings be carried on cigarette packages and advertisements.
  2. At present, cigarette packages in the U.S. carry only text warnings and only on one side.
  3. Canada was the first to introduce pictorial warnings on cigarette packets in 2001. 
  4. By 2018, 118 countries had implemented such warnings in line with the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that came into force in 2005. 

Importance of messaging

  1. Dut to their small size and placement, text warnings remain invisible and fail to convey the harmful effects of smoking. 
  2. Gory pictures are very likely to be noticed, leave a lasting impression of the varied risks of smoking. 
  3. They also convey the central message immediately and easily.
  4. A 2017 study based on modeling found that pictorial warnings could reduce the prevalence of smoking in the U.S by 5% by 2020 and up to 10% by 2065.
  5. Data from countries that introduced pictorial warnings show how powerful they can be. 
    • In Canada, there was a 12% relative reduction in smoking prevalence in 6 years after graphic images were made mandatory. 
    • Australia witnessed more than a 10% drop in prevalence between 2004 and 2008. 
    • The U.K. saw a 10% relative decline in 2009, just a year after image warnings were introduced. 

Challenges to a stricter tobacco law – lessons from the USA

  1. Stiff opposition from the tobacco industry on the ground that graphic images violate rights protecting free speech.
  2. The biggest threat that pictorial warnings pose to tobacco companies is in reducing the appeal and consumption of tobacco. 
  3. About 30% of young adults in 28 European countries and Canada reported that graphic images made them less likely to start smoking.


Pictorial warnings can turn the power of packaging — far from brand building, packages with graphic images will become a mobile medium to spread public health messages at no cost to the government.

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