A controversial tobacco ruling has been stayed by India’s Supreme Court, leading public health advocates to rejoice – and the tobacco industry to fume.
Last year, the Karnataka High Court (KHC) ruled against a Union health ministry directive which said pictorial health warnings had to cover 85 percent of the display area on tobacco product packaging. The law would have been repealed and regulations would revert to the previous standard of health warnings covering just 40 percent of the display area on tobacco products.
Following an appeal by Health Millions Trust, India’s Supreme Court (SC) has stayed the KHC’s ruling in the interest of public health.
‘Destruction of health’
The SC rejected claims by the Tobacco Institute of India (TII) that the stay would negatively impact business, stating they were ‘unimpressed’ by the TII’s argument. “Health of a citizen is of primacy,” the SC said in its decision. “He or she should be aware of that which can affect or deteriorate the condition of health.”
The justices further added, “We may hasten to add…deterioration may be a milder word and, therefore, in all possibility the expression ‘destruction of health’ is apposite.”
The SC’s verdict comes as a relief for public health advocates in India, many of whom condemned the KHC’s decision last year. Dr. Panjak Chaturvedi of the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai said the tobacco industry, which he called ‘the killer of 13 lakh innocent Indians and manufacturer of millions of widows and orphans’, would ‘rejoice’ at the KHC’s decision.
The health ministry’s order about picture warnings came into force in 2016. Tobacco companies went on to file a number of petitions against the directive in several high courts across the country.
These complaints were referred as one to the KHC by the Supreme Court. A special division bench consisting of justices B. S. Patil and B. V. Nagarathna ultimately ruled in the tobacco companies’ favour. The justices deemed the health ministry’s directive unconstitutional as they constituted an ‘unreasonable restriction’ on the right of tobacco producers to do business.
The ruling came despite government findings suggesting that larger health warnings are effective in making tobacco users consider quitting. Health warnings on packaging are considered the most cost-effective way of raising public awareness on the dangers of tobacco consumption.
Tobacco control a public health success
India’s tobacco control efforts constitute one of the country’s biggest public health successes in recent years. This has been despite fierce opposition from the country’s powerful tobacco lobby, which exerts considerable political, social and financial influence in the country.
Last year’s Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) found that, since 2010, India’s tobacco control efforts have succeeded in cutting the number of tobacco users in the country by 17 percent. This exceeded the country’s target of a 15 percent decrease by 2020.
India now has 8.1 million fewer tobacco users. Particular reductions have been noted among young people with tobacco use among 15-24 year-olds down by a third. This has been in spite of intensive (and illegal) advertising campaigns targeting this demographic by tobacco companies such as ITC Ltd. and Philip Morris International.
The Supreme Court’s stay of the KHC’s ruling represents another victory. It suggests the country’s commitment to tobacco control is not diminished, but rather strengthened. The vitality of this cannot be overstated. India loses one million lives – one death every six seconds – to smoking every year.
The final hearing for the appeal against the KHC’s order will be on March 12.