India’s strong policy to protect the public from onscreen smoking is under attack

The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has proposed to completely gut the rule governing smoking in the movies, taking it from a highly visible rule that has been praised around the world and replacing it with a proposal that is almost certain to be ineffective. 

After a long battle, including lawsuits that went to the Supreme Court, the Government of India implemented strong policies to counter the effects of smoking and other tobacco use in movies.

 Now, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which fought sensible regulation of onscreen smoking, is trying to re-open the issue and roll back the current rules, which will make it easier for the kind of backroom deals between multinational tobacco companies and Bollywood described in the World Health Organization (WHO) 2016 report, Smoke-free movies: From evidence to action:

The effective substitution of on-screen tobacco imagery for traditional tobacco advertising is suggested by a survey of popular films in India. Tobacco brand display exploded in Bollywood (Hindi language) films after tobacco advertising was banned in all other Indian media in 2004. The display of premium cigarette brands was more or less evenly split between those belonging to British American Tobacco and its long-time Indian partner, the Indian Tobacco Company, and competing brands belonging to Philip Morris International, whose entry into India’s market under liberalized trade rules coincided with the nation’s tobacco advertising ban. (p. 17)

After years of work by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and health advocates in India, in 2012 the Government acted, as described in the WHO report:

In October 2012, India implemented new rules on the display of tobacco products, tobacco brands and tobacco use in domestic and foreign films and television programmes. Brand display is banned, with product placement, and producers must provide strong justification for any tobacco content in new productions. A film or television programme with tobacco imagery must now run 100 seconds of Government-supplied anti-tobacco announcements and on-screen health disclaimers, in addition to health warnings beneath scenes with tobacco use. (p. 29)

The report goes on to provide a detailed discussion of how India’s policy was developed and implemented (pp 32-36).

India’s leadership was also highlighted in the Population Reference Bureau’s May 2016 report, Addressing noncommunicable disease risk factors among young people: Asia’s window of opportunity to curb a growing epidemic:

Tobacco Control: India, a country with a large and widely popular film industry, has implemented legislation to reduce tobacco imagery on screen. Strong evidence shows that depictions of tobacco use in movies and television programs promote smoking among young people. Some of the requirements in India, enforced by the Central Board of Film Certification, include: Bans on tobacco product placement or showing of brand names. Strong editorial justification to show tobacco or its use in films and television programs, and when this occurs, airing of 30-second anti-tobacco spots and at least 20-second disclaimers prepared by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on the negative effects of tobacco use at the beginning and middle of film and television programs. For old films and television programs, a health warning must scroll on screen during periods when tobacco products are displayed [example below] or used.

Static in-film warning from the film NH10 (Eros, 2015)

While there has not been a formal evaluation of the effects of these changes, the result has been a dramatic expansion of exposure of the population to anti-smoking ads (in theaters) at virtually no cost to taxpayers. In addition, friends and colleagues in India report seeing less onscreen smoking because directors leave the smoking out to avoid the scroll when actors smoke.

Indian tobacco control experts at HRIDAY provided a strong public submission to the Committee outlining the scientific justification for the present rules, which concluded:

The now-mandatory anti-tobacco health spots, disclaimers, warnings and messages help commiunicate the ill effects of tobacco use to the audience. These rules were developed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in consultation with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Ministry of Law and Justice. They were refined and adopted after broad consultation with stakeholders, including several iterations with the Film and Television Producers Guild of India, at the national and regional level. These rules are already strictly enforcd and filmmakers are consciously abiding by them. It is, therefore, imperative that no recommendations are introduced that dilute these rules and open loopholes for marketers to promote tobacco on screen. Indeed, India’s film producers and distributors should be encouraged to further reduce exposure to tobacco imagery on screen — and hence, the neeed for disclaimers and warnings.

Despite this success and international recognition, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has reopened this issue. As former Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss noted, the I&B Ministry even appointed film director Shyam Benegal, a long-time opponent of the current rules, to chair the committee.

Advertising tobacco products is prohibited on television and in print media is outlawed in India, but the tobacco industry has a long history of using the movies to bypass such restrictions. The regulation mandating warnings acts as a strong disincentive for the movie industry to promote tobacco products. Removing this disincentive would give a green light for product placements and advertising on screen.

Changing the current rule would favor multinational cigarette companies (which have a history of product placement in movies) over India’s domestic bidi industry (which does not).

HRIDAY also made several evidence-based recommendations to the committe:

  • From a public health perspective, the [Central] Board [for Film Classification] must consider ratings based on tobacco imagery and occurences a priority in order to minimize the influence of such imagery on uptake of tobacco, particularly among children and young people.
  • As a party to the WHO FCTC, which embodies the global public health consensus on tobacco risks and their amelioration, India must fulfill its obligations to protect its population from tobacco promotion, including the adoption of adult rating for future films with tobacco imagery.
  • Given that the Central Board for Film Certification is responsible for implementing rules for films with tobacco imagery, the Board is requested to make public annual reports identifying, by title and distributing company, all feature-length films with tobacco imagery submitted to the Board and any measures the Board found applicable to these films.
  • It is recommended that the Board publicly disclose, in the film’s advertised rating, concise reasons for all ratings awarded, including for the regulation of tobacco imagery, so that filmmakers can take cognizance of content that triggers a rating. Such transparency will also inform the public about the types of content they can expect to encounter when they see the film and, with public monitoring, continually improve the Board’s work.

Ignoring all this information, on August 1, 2016, The Times of India reported that the Benegal committee recommended that these polices be rolled back in four important ways:

  • Replace the anti-tobacco advertisements provided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shown before and at the intermission of films with smoking with static disclaimers “for a minimum time” at the beginning of the film.
  • Eliminate the static anti-smoking messages that appear at the bottom of the screen when smoking occurs onscreen.
  • “As an option” allow producers to make a short film with an anti-smoking message from the same actor depicted in the film.
  • Replace the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s anti-smoking ads with film industry-produced small films on anti-smoking

These are bad recommendations that will hurt public health because:

  • They replace effective anti-tobacco messages produced by the health authorities with ineffective static messages that no one will pay any attention to.
  • They drop the static messages that currently appear when smoking is portrayed on screen, disincentives for producers and directors to include smoking in a film.
  • They give Bollywood, which has no expertise in health and no motivation to develop and screen effective tobacco prevention messages, a mandate to produce future spots. 

The Government of India should leave well enough alone and maintain its current policies.  If Bollywood, Hollywood, and other distributors want to avoid the anti-smoking messages they have to power to do so:  Just leave smoking and other tobacco use out of their movies.