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Groundbreaking paper documents history of tobacco promotion in Indian television and cinema

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The Union’s Dr. Amit Yadav and Professor Stan Glantz from the Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco are co-authors of the important new study, “Tobacco imagery in entertainment media: evolution of tobacco-free movies and television programmes rules in India.”

Published in BMJ Global Health on 6 January, this seminal paper is the product of a comprehensive nine-month qualitative research investigation involving media searches as well as review of Parliamentary discussion, litigation, and judicial observations. Yadav and Glantz documented and analyzed India’s regulations regarding tobacco depiction in film and television for the seventeen-year period between 2003 to 2020. The resulting paper tells a powerful transformation story—one in which India eventually became, in 2012, the global leader in tobacco-free entertainment content.

India grapples with one of the world’s most severe tobacco epidemics: more than 1.3 million people die each year from tobacco-related diseases; more than 635,000 children use tobacco products; and the adult tobacco use prevalence hovers over 28 per cent. At the same time, the country is home to an incredibly vibrant entertainment industry. India produces between 1500-2000 films each year, reaching over 2.2 billion moviegoers, as well as audiences well beyond the subcontinent. Bollywood is, in fact, such a powerful influencer—young people are particularly enamored with its films—that the tobacco industry relentlessly pursued prominent product placement in films for decades. A 1952 Cinematograph Act from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) prohibiting undefined “glamorisation” of tobacco and smoking did little to deter these efforts for nearly fifty years.

Early in the twenty-first century, however, things began to change with active efforts to regulate tobacco use in Indian films. Introduced in 2001 by the Ministry of health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) was signed into law in 2003. In addition to this complete ban on direct and indirect tobacco product advertising, the MoHFW also issued 2005 regulations prohibiting tobacco presentations in films and television programmes.

Outraged, the tobacco industry partnered with the MoIB to challenge the regulations, embarking on a seven-year battle to derail, delay and dilute key provisions to keep tobacco products off the silver and small screen.

Yadav and Glantz carefully document and detail this epic fight, pitting tobacco industry tactics against the valiant efforts of NGOs, public health authorities, civil society, the World Health Organization, and then Health Minister Dr Ambumani Ramadoss, who led efforts to regulate tobacco imagery in films and television.

“This study documents the complicated history of India’s movie rules,” said Dr. Prakash Gupta, Director Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, Navi Mumbai. “It also shows how Dr. Ramadoss forged critical partnerships with film industry allies who would become strong tobacco control champions.”

Indian films changed dramatically over a ten-year period, with regulations resulting in substantial decreases in on-screen tobacco imagery as well as increased exposure to anti-tobacco messages. In 2005, 89 percent of films included tobacco imagery, compared to just 48 percent in 2015.

While much work remains to be done—the study authors note that television programming and online medium compliance levels needs to be improved—this success story’s lessons can help inform other countries. The paper is also relevant to important policy discussions; this includes the FCTC’s COP8, which formed a special working group to expand guidelines to implement FCTC Article 13, which addresses tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS). in entertainment media.

“This is a tremendously important piece of work,” said The Union’s Dr. Gan Quan. “Its compilation of India’s film rules—and their implementation—is enormously useful to policy makers and tobacco control advocates who are both interested in the Indian experience and eager for lessons they can apply to their own country context.”