Anti-tobacco activists have termed the move as ‘disappointing’ and ‘politically motivated’.

Why Ktaka HCs move reducing pictorial warnings sets back the fight against tobacco
news Legal Saturday, December 16, 2017 - 14:37

Anti-tobacco activists in the country have slammed the Karnataka High Court for striking down the rule that mandated 85% of a tobacco product’s packaging be covered with a pictorial health warning.

“The government is taking the effort to discourage tobacco use because it is evident that it is inherently bad for health ... If tobacco products are causing harm, why should others spend money to make users aware of the consequences? It is the liability of the manufacturer to warn their users,” said Pankaj Chaturvedi, a cancer doctor based in Mumbai, who was part of the expert committee formed by the Central Government that placed the pictorial warnings on tobacco products.

The Karnataka High Court on Friday said the 2014 Supreme Court Amendment violated constitutional norms.

The guideline was in place since the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Rules 2014 (COTPA) came into effect from April 1 last year. 

A division bench comprising Justices BS Patil and BV Nagarathna passed the order on a batch of petitions filed by tobacco manufacturing companies, and others from across the country, opposing the 85% pictorial warning rule notified by the Union Health Ministry, reported The Hindu

“With this order, the court is saying: promote more, prevent less. From a cancer specialist’s point of view this is extremely disappointing,” Dr Vishal Rao, a member of the High Power Committee on Tobacco Control, Government of Karnataka, told The New Indian Express on Friday.

The pleas against the 2014 rules were filed before the High Courts of Calcutta, Bombay, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka and Rajasthan, but the Supreme Court transferred them all to the Karnataka High Court in May last year.

The petitioners opposing the rule had argued that the pictures were ‘gruesome and misleading’. Dr Pankaj dismissed the argument saying, “The images shown on the packets are a reality. They are real cancer patients I have been treating and their issues are well proven to have stemmed from tobacco. We want people to be repulsed by these images. We don’t want first-time users to pick up a packet of cigarettes and this is an effective way of catching a user’s attention.” 

 A Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) conducted in 2016-17 revealed that 62% smokers thought of quitting because of the warning label on the packets and that 92% of adults surveyed believed smoking caused serious illness.

“This is a political decision. Ninety nine per cent of people who smoke don’t know what carcinogens can do. In the absence of such awareness the pictorial warnings were essential. Now that is gone, we are back to where we started. This is a regressive step,” said SJ Chander, convener of Tobacco Free Karnataka to The New Indian Express.

According to the Cigarette Package Health Warnings International Status Report released in 2016, out of 205 countries that have pictorial health warnings on tobacco packages, India moved to the 3rd position. The country was earlier ranked 136.

But with the latest High Court ruling, tobacco companies are free to revert to the 40% pictorial health warning rules, which existed prior to the 2016 amendment. 

Sajan Poovayya – of Poovayya & Co. that represented several tobacco companies, including ITC and Philip Morris International Inc.’s Indian partner, Godfrey Phillips India Ltd., in court – cheered the move. “Bye Bye gruesome warnings on tobacco packages,” he said on Twitter after the verdict came out.

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