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OTT has escaped India’s on-screen smoking laws
In Episode 2 of Trial By Fire, a Netflix series on the 1997 Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy, two women bond over a cigarette. In the minute-long scene, they take drags and fill the frame with clouds of smoke. But they’re not the only ones puffing away on OTT platforms without any health warning on the screen.
India’s public health experts are now worried that the unabated depiction of tobacco use on OTT platforms will set the country back on its anti-tobacco efforts by two decades.
“The drop in smoking numbers will pick up again,” says Monika Arora, vice-president of research and health promotion at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).
Unlike films and shows screened in theatres and on television, binge-worthy shows and movies on streaming platforms don’t carry any warnings and have become the new avenues for tobacco promotion in India.
And the Union health ministry’s hands are tied. Its strong anti-tobacco law – Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) 2003 – does not yet apply to the content shown on OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, SonyLiv and Disney+ Hotstar.
Sources said that the ministries have deliberated on this subject for almost two years, but have not found common ground.
A 2011 study showed that India’s adolescents — aged 12 to 16—are easily influenced by actors smoking on screen.
“It is so powerful because people don’t realise that they are being advertised to. It is stronger than peer pressure and conventional advertising,” says Stanton A. Glantz, a retired professor from the Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco. Glantz has been working toward making films smoke-free in the US and India for more than 20 years.
Such depictions, however, are now common on OTT. In the opening scene of the 2020 Amazon Prime series Rasbhari, the protagonist is shown smoking with a friend. Fifteen minutes into the first episode, he puffs another cigarette—this time in school uniform.
India’s OTT universe saw a growth of more than 20 per cent over the last year, with 70.6 million new viewers in 2022, as per a report by consulting firm Ormax.
But anti-smoking regulations have failed to keep pace.
Films are regulated by the Cinematograph Act of 1952, and TV shows under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995. COTPA applies to both of these laws. Depiction of tobacco use in theatres and television should include a mandatory 100-second health warning before being cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
Theatre and channel owners can be fined if these health warnings are not shown. On repeated offences, their licences can be revoked. The Print