Following controversial remarks by Bharatiya Janata Party MPs on the issue of pictorial warnings on cigarette packets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday asked Health Minister J P Nadda to appoint a high-level committee to study the issue.
This came as three BJP MPs who were on the parliamentary panel that recommended a stay on bigger warnings voiced their dissent, saying that such enlarged warnings were not required.
The panel had recommended to the health ministry that the decision on increasing the pictorial warning size on tobacco packets from 40 per cent to 85 per cent should be kept in abeyance till further study.
Speaking in Bengaluru on the same day, union health minister J P Nadda said the government did not "subscribe" to their remarks that suggested "nil" effect in curbing the smoking habit. The minister was referring to some party lawmakers controversially claiming there was no evidence in India to link cigarettes to cancer.
Nadda also said that his ministry is "consistent" on its stand that the consumption of tobacco has to be reduced.
The minister's comments came hours after BJP parliamentarian from Assam, Ram Prasad Sarmah said that anyone who believed that smoking causes cancer should consider this - "I know two elderly people who drank a bottle of alcohol and smoked 60 cigarettes every day. One is still alive, the other died at 86."
Dilip Gandhi, chairman of the parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation, had said that no studies had been conducted in India to prove any link between smoking and cancer.
Another MP and member of the committee S C Gupta, who owns a bidi-making business, had written to the committee saying bidis have very little tobacco and are therefore not harmful.
Modi called Nadda during the lunch break on the opening day of the BJP's national executive and asked him to explain the background of the controversy, after which he asked him to appoint a high-level committee that would make recommendations for the government to act on.
Meanwhile, voicing disagreement with the panel's view, BJP MP Chandulal Sahu said, ''Former health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had brought the notification increasing the size of the pictorial warning from 40 per cent to 85 per cent. I had been in favour of that but they said they would take a call after talking to some experts. There is no doubt that tobacco is harmful.''
Many who were on the panel still continue to echo Gandhi and Gupta's stand.
''Forty per cent pictorial warnings are enough. There are more than four lakh workers who depend on this. There is no reason to increase the size. The decision of the committee was unanimous,'' BJP MP from Assam Ram Prasad Sarmah said.
Birendra Kumar Chaudhry, BJP MP from Bihar, said, ''There is no doubt tobacco is harmful. But it is also true that there are cancer patients who have never consumed it in their lives. I think 40 per cent warning is enough, I do not want poor workers to lose their livelihood.''
BJP MP Narendra Keshav Sawaikar said, ''The deliberations of the committee are still on. It is an ongoing process, nothing has been finalised yet.''
The committee is due to meet again on 6 April.