Netflix, Amazon, Disney-backed group protests India’s tobacco rules

An Indian group representing Netflix, Amazon and Disney has told the government its new tobacco warning rules are impossible to implement for streaming giants and will impinge on content creators’ freedom of expression, a letter seen by Reuters showed.

As part of India’s anti-tobacco drive, the health ministry last month ordered streaming platforms to insert static health warnings during smoking scenes within three months. Also, India wants at least 50 seconds of anti-tobacco disclaimers, including an audio-visual, at the start and in the middle of each program.

The three companies, and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s streaming platform JioCinema, were recently part of a privately held discussion to consider pushback options, including a legal challenge, as executives worried that the rules would require editing of millions of hours of Indian and Hollywood content.

The amount of multilingual content on platforms “is very high … there is a practical impossibility associated with including such warnings across content,” the letter by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) stated.

IAMAI asked the health ministry to revisit the “onerous” rules, saying a survey had shown viewers were indifferent to depictions of smoking on streaming platforms, the letter said.

Netflix declined to comment, while IAMAI and the other companies did not immediately respond. The health ministry also did not respond.

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Beyond Hollywood content, streaming companies Netflix, Amazon, Disney and JioCinema have become increasingly popular in India. Popular Hindi content starring Bollywood actors on such platforms has smoking scenes. Activists have welcomed the new rules, saying it would discourage smoking in a country where tobacco kills 1.3 million people each year.

The companies believe content descriptors – which warn users with a label “smoking” in a video alongside its title at the start – were more effective, IAMAI said.

The “disruptions” caused by warnings, the group said, were “problematic for creators that put in considerable investments.”

All smoking and alcohol-drinking scenes in movies in Indian films and on TV, under law, require health warnings, but there were so far no regulations for the streaming giants.

In 2013, Woody Allen stopped his film, Blue Jasmine, from being screened in India after learning that mandatory anti-tobacco warnings would be inserted into its smoking scenes.

Sanjay Seth of non-profit Sambandh Health Foundation said there should be no difference in how smoking is discouraged in cinema, and on digital platforms.

“They must implement this. It will save lives,” Seth said.

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