The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in observance of World No Tobacco Day, has announced the revised regulations under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2004.
These amendments now require over-the-top (OTT) platforms — such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — to display anti-tobacco warning messages, similar to those played in movie theaters and television programmes.
The move, lauded by experts, makes India the first country to introduce anti-tobacco warnings over tobacco imagery shown on any OTT streaming content.
As per the notification, online content publishers (OTT platforms) featuring tobacco products or their usage will be obligated to include anti-tobacco health spots lasting a minimum of 30 seconds at the beginning and middle of their programmes.
Furthermore, when tobacco products or their use are depicted in the content, a prominent static message conveying an anti-tobacco health warning must be displayed at the bottom of the screen.
➡️Publishers of online curated content that display tobacco products or their use will be required to comply with specific guidelines.
— Ministry of Health (@MoHFW_INDIA) May 31, 2023
Rules and regulations
Additionally, an audio-visual disclaimer emphasising the detrimental effects of tobacco use, lasting at least 20 seconds, must be shown at the beginning and middle of the programme, reads the official notification.
The notification also specifies that the anti-tobacco health warning message, as mentioned in Clause (b) of sub-rule (1), should be clearly legible and readable, presented with black font on a white background, and state either “Tobacco causes cancer” or “Tobacco kills.”
➡️Dr @mansukhmandviya appeals to people to break free from the shackles of tobacco use and embrace a healthier life.
— Ministry of Health (@MoHFW_INDIA) May 31, 2023
Moreover, the language used for the anti-tobacco health warning messages, health spots, and audio-visual disclaimers must correspond to the language utilised in the online curated content.
Another amendment dictates that the display of tobacco products or their use in online curated content shall not extend to a display of the brand of cigarettes or other tobacco products or any form of tobacco product placement and display of tobacco products or their use in promotional materials.
In case of breach of rules
According to a senior ministry official, the decision was taken following discussions with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and other stakeholders.
“If the publisher of online curated content fails to comply with the provisions of sub-rules (1) to (5), an inter-ministerial committee consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, shall take action suo motu or on a complaint, and after identifying the publisher of online curated content, issue notice giving reasonable opportunity to explain such failure and make appropriate modification in the content,” the notification states.
The expression “online curated content” means any curated catalogue of audio-visual content, other than news and current affairs content, which is owned by, licensed to, or contracted to be transmitted by a publisher of online curated content, and made available on demand, including but not limited through subscription, over the internet or computer networks, and includes films, audio-visual programmes, television programs, serials, series, and other such content.
Experts laud the move
A recent study titled “A Behavioral Assessment of Tobacco Disclaimers on OTT Content Services: The Effectiveness“, published on 30 May by Koan advisory group, an organisation specialising in public policy consultancy, said: “Our results suggest that adding a disclaimer on top of the current content descriptors and age-ratings is unlikely to fulfil the policy objectives.
“It may be more effective to ensure a better standardised industry response to the provisions of the IT Rules, 2021. This is especially important as the younger cohorts are more likely to watch content on OTT services online.”
It also added that users feel that the depiction of smoking content on TV or OTT has an insignificant impact on smoking uptake. The influence of friends or peers and mental stress are among the most influential factors when it comes to smoking, while family, neighbourhood, and warnings at points of sale such as cigarette packs are the deterrents.
Nevetheless, experts welcomed the move by the Union Health Ministry.
“The implementation of new regulations governing the display of tobacco on digital content platforms is a highly commendable move, considering the increasing prominence of OTT services as primary sources of entertainment and information,” Dr Rajeev Kaushik, general physician at Hyderabad’s Aditya Hospital, South First.
“The government’s intervention in this matter serves a dual purpose: Regulating online content providers, and raising awareness, particularly among the younger generation, about the detrimental consequences of tobacco consumption in any form,” said Dr Kaushik.
Tobacco use is associated with a wide range of health problems, including respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and various types of cancers — all of which can be prevented. Tobacco-related healthcare costs and productivity losses place a significant economic burden on societies.
“According to WHO, tobacco use leads to a one percent loss of GDP due to diseases and early deaths. Ensuring effective tobacco control measures is crucial for both the prevention and management of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and as well as economic loss,” said Dr Kaushik.
Glamour and smoking
“When tobacco use is depicted in a positive or glamorous light in OTT content, it can contribute to the normalisation of smoking or tobacco consumption. This normalisation can lead to increased acceptance and uptake of tobacco products,” Dr Pragya Rashmi, a psychologist at Asha Hospital in Hyderabad, told South First.
“The portrayal of tobacco-use on OTT platforms does influence the behavior and attitudes of viewers,” she added.
Viewers may perceive smoking or tobacco-use as socially desirable or a way to fit in, leading to experimentation or initiation of tobacco use.
Exposure to smoking scenes or tobacco-use on OTT platforms can increase their susceptibility to nicotine addiction and make it harder for them to quit if they start using tobacco.
“It’s a good move to monitor portrayal of tobacco use on OTT platform,” Dr Rashmi said.