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India and the global battle against tobacco on OTT platforms

ByHindustan Times
Aug 16, 2023 12:11 PM IST

This article is authored by K Madan Gopal, advisor, Public Health Administration, National Health Systems Resource Centre, MoHFW, Government of India.

Last World No Tobacco Day, May 31, 2023, India took a momentous stride in combatting the grave consequences of tobacco consumption. The government expanded the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Amendment Rules, introducing robust measures to curb tobacco use and its associated health ailments. Recognising the urgent need to protect citizens from the scourge of tobacco-related diseases, the new rules mandate OTT platforms to incorporate powerful anti-tobacco warnings into their content.

Say no to alcohol and smoking.(Pixabay)
Say no to alcohol and smoking.(Pixabay)

Online content publishers are now required to display gripping anti-tobacco health spots, each lasting a minimum of 30 seconds, at the beginning and middle of their programmes. Additionally, they must prominently feature an anti-tobacco health warning on-screen during any depiction of tobacco products. To further reinforce the message, an impactful audio-visual disclaimer about the harmful effects of tobacco use, lasting at least 20 seconds, must be included at the start and middle of the programme.

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India's resolve to take decisive action against tobacco is commendable, especially considering that the nation has the world's second largest number of tobacco users. Tobacco use causes debilitating diseases such as cancer, lung disease, cardiovascular issues, and stroke, claiming a staggering 1.35 million lives annually in India alone. The toll on human lives and the burden on the nation's economy, amounting to more than 1% of Gross Domestic Product according to GATS 2016, necessitate effective tobacco control measures.

The youth, the largest consumers of OTT content, are particularly susceptible to tobacco influence. With a staggering viewership of 658 million in India as of February 2022 and young adults aged 18-24 spending nearly 39 minutes daily on these platforms, the impact of this intervention can be profound.

Expectedly, the government crackdown has triggered pushback from those associated with streaming content and the world of advertisement. Some have called for scrapping the new rules and cited issues like the non-feasibility of these rules, the impact on freedom of expression, and the limited effectiveness of tobacco warnings. Others have flagged “fundamental concerns” or “practical difficulties” in implementing the new anti-tobacco guidelines for OTT platforms or that stakeholders were not consulted before the notification.

While the government's bold move has been met with resistance, arguing about feasibility, freedom of expression, and limited effectiveness of warnings, it is essential to highlight that commercial interests around a deadly product cannot be prioritised over human lives.

Onscreen, smoking often appears glamorous and fabulous, inadvertently influencing children, young adults, and professionals to view tobacco use and vaping as fantastic habits. This is why, in 2012, India embarked on a pioneering endeavour to mitigate the impact of onscreen smoking and tobacco consumption. Introducing groundbreaking regulations, any film featuring tobacco use was mandated to incorporate a warning and advertisement/TV spot highlighting the perils of tobacco use. These crucial messages are displayed before the film's commencement and during the intermission, aiming to raise awareness and safeguard public health. A study evaluating Film Rules by Vital Strategies, supported by the World Health Organization in 2017, demonstrated increased positive and audience concern about tobacco's harmful effects and heightened intentions to quit among people who had seen the disclaimers.

In the last few years, in the absence of any regulation on streaming platforms, tobacco companies turned to streaming web series, movies, and other content through product placements and showing key actors smoking or vaping. The Truth Initiative's 2021 report, "While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand," reveals the alarming prevalence of tobacco imagery in entertainment on OTT platforms. Approximately 70% of popular series among young adults portray tobacco use, and an estimated 27 million youngsters were exposed to such imagery in 2020 through top-streamed shows. The lack of regulation has allowed tobacco imagery to flourish, raising concerns that more youngsters could fall victim to tobacco addiction.

Today, India is a trailblazer in tobacco control, having set a new benchmark with these rules. To safeguard public health, the government must remain steadfast in its decision. While focusing on OTT platforms is crucial, India must also address rampant, indirect tobacco marketing on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram, primarily carried out by tobacco companies through brand extensions. Prohibiting all forms of tobacco marketing aimed at the youth on social media is essential. Additional checks and balances must be reinforced to thwart the tobacco industry's relentless efforts to hook youngsters and replace consumers lost to tobacco-related diseases.

The new OTT rules can reach a vast audience, significantly curbing tobacco-related harms and fostering a healthier society. Our collective moral duty is to educate the public about tobacco's hazards. India can become a global exemplar in tobacco control efforts by regulating OTT platforms as meticulously as films and TV. Let this be a defining moment where we put human well-being first and embrace a future free from the shackles of tobacco addiction. Together, we can build a healthier, tobacco-free India that leads the world by example.

This article is authored by K Madan Gopal, advisor, Public Health Administration, National Health Systems Resource Centre, MoHFW, Government of India.

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