The Supreme Court today refused to stay the Union Health Ministry directive on increasing the size of pictorial warnings on packets of tobacco products which meant that all companies will have to implement it forthwith.
With effect from April 1, the ministry had increased the size of warnings on tobacco and cigarette packs to 85 percent from 40 percent and made it mandatory for all companies.
A bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy was hearing pleas filed by Karnataka Beedi Industry Association and 27 other companies mostly from south and western regions seeking a stay on enforcing the new rules.They argued that the rules would cause a grave and irreparable harm to the tobacco industry.
Significantly, the bench transferred all matters to Bangalore High Court and set a deadline of eight weeks to dispose off the petitions.
“Why are you coming up with such petitions? What is there to challenge? It is expected that tobacco companies act responsibly. Any awareness created on the issue will only help curb the ill effects of tobacco”, the bench told the petitioners.
The tobacco industries cited a health ministry-appointed parliamentary panel that said the implementation of large size health warnings would be an extreme measure. But the bench was not impressed.
CIRCUMVENTING THE DIRECTIVE ?
It is to be noted that on April 8 the court had issued notice to the Health Ministry on a PIL which sought immediate implementation of plain packaging rules for cigarette and other tobacco products saying jazzy covers and those with messages only attracted more consumers.
Petitioner Umesh Narain Sharma, an Allahabad-based lawyer had said that cigarette and bidi companies were violating the rules pertaining topictorial warnings on packets of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Appearing for Sharma, himself bed-ridden after being afflicted by tongue cancer after constant use of tobacco products for the past 40 years, advocate Aishwarya Bhati said the tobacco companies were trying to divert attention of the customers from the pictorial warning by publishing various colourful pictures and messages on them.
She argued that what was required was plain packaging in addition to the pictoral health warning as per provisions of Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products Act, 2003. Bhati argued that even the pictorial warning at present in packets of several companies occupied less than 40 percent of one side which was mandatory as per the Health Ministry rules.
The PIL said Allahabad High Court had recommended immediate implementation of plain packaging of cigarette and other tobacco products. Despite high prevalence of tobacco use and over one million tobacco related deaths yearly in India and despite clear recommendation of the Allahabad High Court to implement plain packaging of cigarette and other tobacco products,Centre has taken no steps to discourage attractive packaging of tobacco products and implement plain packaging, the PIL said.
The PIL contended that presently in India tobacco products are packed in very attractive packaging to entice youths to take up tobacco consumption.
Such packaging also draws attention away from health warning and make them redundant. Therefore, to counter this tactics of the Industry, plain packaging is the best strategy which would prohibit brand colours, logos and graphics on tobacco packages, thus eliminating package as mini-billboards that promote tobacco.