©Dr. Aparna Govil Bhasker, Mumbai, India

The recent Cricket World Cup that concluded day before yesterday was an exhilarating spectacle, captivating fans worldwide. As we navigate the mixed emotions following our defeat, there’s been a thought lingering in my mind— more of a reflection that’s stayed with me throughout the entire World Cup.

It’s time to shed some light on it.

India is a cricket crazy nation. We eat, live and breathe cricket. It doesn’t matter whether we are 7 years old or seventy. Cricket rules our emotions and unites us like no other sport in this world. With millions glued to the televisions and mobile phones, many viewership records were broken during this world cup. No wonder that it presented an immense opportunity for advertising. Many brands were riding high on this cricket frenzy and mania. Among these, a concerning trend emerged – advertisements adeptly masking tobacco promotion behind the veil of seemingly innocuous products.

According to a survey performed in 2016-17, 21.38% people in India use smokeless tobacco and 10.38% use smoking tobacco. Adverse health effects of tobacco in any form are devastating. Tobacco smoking causes almost every type of cancer in the human body and leads to significant increase in cardio-vascular events like heart attacks. India has one of the highest rates of oral cancers in the world and chewing tobacco is responsible for almost 50% of these cases. (Remember those gory oral cancer pictures in movie theatres just before the movie starts!). Tobacco single-handedly leads to more than eight million deaths annually worldwide and accounts for almost 10% deaths in India. It kills more people than tuberculosis, HIV and malaria put together. To make matters worse, deaddiction from tobacco is extremely difficult.

Coming back to the World Cup, viewers were bombarded with a continuous stream of ads after every single over. Amidst the mounting tension, whether in anticipation of a boundary or a wicket, based on our team’s position, we endured the repetitive onslaught of these commercials. These ads featured some very famous movie and sports personalities endorsing products that appeared to promote something other than tobacco. Though not explicitly advertising tobacco, they cleverly alluded to products often linked or used as an alternative to tobacco. This crafty advertising tactic sidesteps regulations against direct tobacco promotion. The involvement of influential personalities, including movie and sports idols and celebrities, amplifies the impact of these misleading campaigns.

What’s disconcerting is the lack of responsibility displayed by everyone involved. Shouldn’t public figures reconsider endorsing products that indirectly promote habits detrimental to public health, particularly amidst the country’s struggle against increasing cases of cancer and tobacco-related illnesses? Contending that these endorsements exclusively concern products other than tobacco doesn’t absolve celebrities, brands, TV channels, or agencies from considering broader implications.

It’s time for our stars and influential personalities to prioritize their roles as societal influencers over monetary gains. They hold significant power to shape public opinion and behaviours and bear the responsibility of promoting a healthier, more responsible society. 2 years back, Christiano Ronaldo created headlines for the right reasons when he had replaced a bottle of an aerated cold drink with a bottle of water during a press conference. More power comes with more responsibility and don’t our beloved stars owe this much to us?

As doctors we see the other side of the spectrum on a daily basis. Hospitals are not stadiums full of an excited and energetic crowd, nor are they the make-believe world of the movies. We see a lot of suffering, we see people with disfigured faces, we see people who cannot swallow a single morsel of food due to a cancer roaring in the food pipe. We see people who have lost their voices and we see people whose disease is so far advanced that we cannot help them despite our best efforts. We see young children getting orphaned and entire families getting destroyed.

It’s crucial to recognize the veiled implications within these commercials and advocate for higher ethical benchmarks in endorsements, particularly concerning health risks. This highlights the urgency for increased personal responsibility and ethical consciousness among public figures, TV channels and brands. Let this echo as a compelling plea for increased mindfulness, ethical integrity, and personal accountability. At the end of the day, regulations and laws often contain loopholes, but personal responsibility stands higher and is devoid of such gaps.

Is this too much to ask for?