An Indian group representing Netflix, Amazon and Disney has told the government that new rules on smoking warnings are impossible for the streaming giants to enforce and will hurt content creators’ freedom of expression, a letter seen by Reuters shows.

As part of India’s anti-smoking campaign, the health ministry last month ordered streaming platforms to insert static health warnings during smoking scenes within three months. In addition, India wants at least 50 seconds of anti-smoking disclaimers, including audio-visuals, at the beginning and middle of each program.

The three companies and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s streaming platform JioCinema have recently been part of a private discussion to explore options for the rejection, including a legal challenge, as executives worried the rules would require editing millions of hours of Indian and Hollywood content.

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

IAMAI has asked the health ministry to review the “heavy-handed” rules, saying research has shown viewers are indifferent to smoking images on streaming platforms, the letter said.

Netflix declined to comment until IAMAI and the other companies immediately responded. The Ministry of Health also did not respond.

Beyond Hollywood content, streaming companies Netflix, Amazon, Disney and JioCinema are gaining popularity in India. Popular Hindi content with Bollywood actors on such platforms has smoking scenes.

Campaigners welcomed the new rules in India, saying it would discourage smoking in a country where tobacco kills 1.3 million people every year.

The companies believe the content descriptors — which warn users with a “smoking” tag in the video next to its title at the beginning — were more effective, IAMAI said.

The “disruptions” caused by the warnings, the group said, are “problematic for creators who make significant investments.”

By law, all smoking and drinking scenes in films in Indian cinemas and on television require health warnings, but until now there were 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-smoking warnings would be inserted into smoking scenes.

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

“They have to implement that. It will save lives,” Seth said.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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