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India's traditional cigarette makers halt production over health warnings

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s traditional cigarette industry, which makes hand-rolled smokes and employs more than 8 million people, shut down production on Thursday, saying it could not meet new government rules requiring them to print bigger health warnings on tobacco packets.

A labourer holds a bundle of bidis (shredded tobacco hand-rolled in tendu leaves) in Bhulki village, about 190 km (118 miles) south of Siliguri May 31, 2008. . REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

New rules mandate that from April 1 all manufacturers must cover 85 percent of the surface of a packet of cigarettes with health warnings, up from 20 percent now.

Traditional cigarettes, called beedis, are made by wrapping raw tobacco in leaves that are then packed manually in conical paper packets that have curved surfaces. The shape means small-scale manufacturers in rural areas cannot print warnings on the packs, an industry body said.

“The curved area and wrapping paper edges prevent printing on a reasonably large area of the curved surface,” All India Beedi Industry Federation (AIBIF) said in a statement. “All the workers, mainly women in rural areas, engaged by the industry have been rendered jobless overnight.”

Arjun Khanna, a member of the AIBIF, said the industry body represents 65 percent of India’s $1.1 billion beedi industry, which employs more than 8 million people, mostly in impoverished rural areas.

Health officials in New Delhi could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but the ministry this week stepped up its fight against the industry by ordering strict implementation of the new rules.

The rules have already hit the $10 billion cigarette industry. The cigarette maker ITC Ltd, which is part-owned by British American Tobacco, shut its factories last week, saying it needed more clarity on the new rules.

The cigarette makers say they’re unclear on how big the warnings need to be. In March, a parliamentary panel’s report on the impact of the new rules called for reducing the size of the warnings to 50 percent of the pack.

Smoking kills about 1 million people in India each year, according to researchers at BMJ Global Health. The World Health Organization has called the debate on reducing the warnings size in India “worrisome”.

“Beedi industry is using this as an excuse. Samples show it is possible to print bigger warnings on their packs,” said Sanjay Seth of Voice of Tobacco Victims, an anti-tobacco campaign.

Reporting by Aditya Kalra, editing by Larry King