India has the second largest number of tobacco consumers in the world. Twenty-nine percent of adults in India—some 267 million people—use tobacco in some form. The tobacco industry heavily markets products, sponsoring positive events such as fashion shows and children’s spelling bees. Companies also diversify, selling biscuits, noodles, stationery, lifestyle products and perfumes, giving the impression that tobacco products are just another benign consumer goods.
“We, as public health people, know that it’s all a facade that they have created to confuse the policymakers and people at large,” said Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, and one of the country’s leading voices in the fight against tobacco.
In 2016, India made a wide-ranging change to taxes across all consumer goods. As a result, tobacco prices dropped. Cheaper cigarettes, bidis and chewing tobacco products led to more consumption, essentially undercutting longstanding efforts to reduce tobacco use. In response, working with prominent Indian doctors, Vital Strategies helped orchestrate a strategic digital campaign to galvanize medical professionals, tobacco victims and civil society groups. This ultimately persuaded the government to tax all tobacco products at the highest rate under the tax overhaul.
“We were amazed at the involvement of physicians,” said Dr. Chaturvedi. “Many people started a Twitter account just to participate in this campaign.”
This movement is a part of a larger information war against tobacco being waged on several fronts in India with Vital Strategies’ support. To counter tobacco industry tactics we air advertisements featuring actual tobacco users – young people with tobacco-related oral cancers; fought to enact a rule that mandates tobacco warnings if tobacco products are depicted in a movie; mobilizing support for higher taxes; and launch campaigns to address the dangers of secondhand smoke, especially to children. We also partner with government agencies to use videos and testimonials to amplify the suffering endured by those with tobacco-related illnesses and their family members.
“We made videos [that take into account] Indian culture and Indian feelings, and it worked very well,” Dr. Chaturvedi said, adding that the most powerful advocates that he and his colleagues have found for tobacco control are not the doctors, but the people who have lost loved ones—parents who have lost a child, for instance, or a man who has lost his wife and the mother of his children. This human face of tobacco use has contributed to a drop in tobacco consumption by six percent nationwide.
“A group of tobacco victims are shutting down the industry that sold them cancer,” said Dr. Chaturvedi. “This is the voice of tobacco victims’ campaign. It is not the statistics, it is the individual story that moves the policymaker and law enforcer. Vital Strategies has uniquely contributed to transforming these stories of human suffering into social media, into public messaging—which has truly contributed to tobacco control in India.”