In a crucial move that will mandate OTT (over-the-top) platforms or streaming services to show health warnings during smoking scenes in movies and Web series, the Union Health Ministry is planning to amend the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA).
Officials said that the changes in COTPA rules are expected within the next few months.
“We have had several inter-ministerial deliberations with the Information & Broadcasting ministry over this and now it has been decided that the changes would be made in COTPA,” said a senior health ministry official.
This, explained another official, was being done to ensure that the gains made through anti-tobacco warnings in films and TV shows are not “completely lost”.
The government had notified the rules under the COTPA, 2003 to regulate the depiction of tobacco imagery in films and TV programmes.
Existing rules mandate that all films and programmes shown in theatres and television channels should display anti-tobacco health spots of minimum 30 seconds each at the beginning and middle of the films and television programmes.
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In addition, films need to display an audio-visual disclaimer about the ill-effects of tobacco use, display an anti-tobacco health warning as a prominent static message at the bottom of the screen during the period of display of the tobacco products or their use in film and television programmes.
The Act also says that films or TV shows cannot display the brands of cigarettes or other tobacco products or any form of tobacco product placement and close-ups of tobacco products and tobacco product packages.
While these rules are fairly well implemented in films screened in theatres and by cable or network television broadcasters, OTT platforms remain outside the umbrella of the existing laws, pointed out Binoy Mathew, manager, Voluntary Health Association of India.
Many of the series on OTT platforms show tobacco brands as well as close-ups of tobacco products and tobacco usage and none of the series include anti-tobacco messages, spots and disclaimers, he added.
‘Higher number of tobacco consumption scenes on OTT’
Dr Monika Arora, vice president & professor (research and health promotion), Public Health Foundation, said that a trend analysis undertaken by her research team in 2020, clearly underscored how successful these rules were in reducing tobacco use depiction in Bollywood films.
At the same time, the study found on-demand streaming shows, popular among Indian adolescents and young adults, showed extensive tobacco use depiction, which was higher than what was observed in Indian films.
The study involved content analysis on tobacco imagery in 188 episodes across the 10 most popular series among Indian youth (15–24 years) on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Tobacco incidents per hour ranged from 0 (Bodyguard, Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why) to 106.1 (The Marvellous Mrs Maisel). Seventy percent of the series depicted tobacco imagery and none were compliant with the Tobacco Free Film and TV Rules under India’s Tobacco Control Act, 2003, the study found.
“To safeguard children and youth from the detrimental tobacco advertisements on OTT, we need to strengthen our policies governing the depiction of tobacco imagery on OTT platforms in our country,” Arora said.
The effects of exposure to tobacco imagery in streaming shows should not be any different than the effects of tobacco imagery in films and television, she stressed.
‘Heaven for promotion of tobacco use’
Mathew, too, said that it is alarming to see that the streaming media has become a haven for promoting tobacco use and this extensive promotion is undermining government efforts to discourage tobacco use.
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To remain a global leader in protecting young people from the exposure to tobacco use and depiction in entertainment media, India must close the regulatory gap in OTT media and ideally extend its film rules to OTT platforms with effective enforcement, he said.