A Supreme Court directive last week that tobacco packs would have to adhere to the 85% pictorial warning norm may have finally brought the curtains down on a long and bitter battle that had been raging in the country for about 19 months. Here’s all you need to know about the battle that has been as much about public health as it has been about politics and business.
When was the decision taken to increase the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco packs to 85% of the principal display area instead of the original 40%?
The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Rules 2014 were notified in October 2014 under which the size of the pictorial warning was to be increased, the intention being to reach out to people who may be illiterate, or may not notice small warnings. The larger warnings were to come into effect from April 1, 2015. Many believed the move was powered by then Health Minister Dr Harshvardhan’s firm commitment to the anti-tobacco cause — his sudden removal from the Health Ministry less than a month after the notification was issued, likewise led to frenzied speculation about the hand of the “tobacco lobby”.
How did the Committee on Subordinate Legislation come into the picture?
The Committee, among whose members is Allahabad MP Shyama Charan Gupta, the owner of a self-declared bidi empire that has an annual turnover of Rs 200-250 crore, suo motu decided to examine the notification soon after the first reshuffle of the Cabinet. It tabled an interim report in Parliament in March 2015, asking the Health Ministry to postpone the implementation of the warnings until it had managed to examine various aspects in greater detail. The report made a strong pitch for exempting bidis, saying: “Bidis are natural product and are very small as compared to cigarettes. As such, bidis should not be compared with cigarettes as far as rules are concerned… There is no alternative crops for bidi/tobacco farmers… The new rule that 85% of the bidi wrapper should contain horrific warnings etc. will cause the bidi industry to collapse.” Outside of Parliament, Committee chairman Dilip Gandhi got into another major controversy after he claimed that there was no Indian study to prove that tobacco actually causes cancer.
What was the response of the government?
Immediately after the report of the Committee on Subordinate Legislation came in, the Health Ministry decided to put on hold the five-month-old notification, five days before it was to have come into effect. This, despite the fact that the report of the Committee was not binding on the government. There have been numerous instances of governments having gone ahead with decisions despite objections from Parliamentary panels — a recent example being the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015 that mandated that children aged between 16 and 18 years, who are accused of heinous crimes, may be tried under adult laws if certain conditions are fulfilled. Health Minister J P Nadda defended the decision saying he believed in stakeholder consultation.
Did the government share the Committee’s concerns about the loss of livelihood for tobacco farmers etc.?
In its written reply to the Committee, the Agriculture Ministry said that alternative crops had been mapped out in regions engaged in tobacco production, so there would be no great implications for farmers’ livelihood. The crops thus identified were onion, chilli, maize and sunflower in Tamil Nadu; sugarcane, soyabean, groundnut and sorghum in Karnataka; potato, maize, wheat and mustard in West Bengal; and maize, sunflower, black gram and chickpea in Andhra Pradesh.
So what forced the Health Ministry to move on the pictorial warnings?
In August last year, the Rajasthan High Court, responding to a PIL, ordered the Centre and the state government to immediately implement the 2014 rules under the anti-tobacco law.
“After hearing the learned counsel appearing for the petitioner and considering the research as well as orders passed by various High Courts and the Supreme Court, we find it imperative, and in larger public interest, to stay the operation of the corrigendum. The rules of 2014 will come into force immediately, and will be enforced by the Centre and the Government of Rajasthan,” stated the order, passed by a two-judge bench of the High Court on July 3, 2015. The Centre was forced to make a commitment that the rules would come into effect from April 1, 2016, exactly one year after its original date of implementation.
And did the Committee on Subordinate Legislation too come round to the idea that 85% warnings on tobacco packets is a public health requirement?
It did not. In its final report submitted in the Budget Session of Parliament this year, it said: “The Committee are of considered view that in order to have a balanced approach, the warning on the cigarette packets should be 50% on both sides of the principal display area instead of 85% of the principal display area as it will be too harsh and… will result in flooding of illicit cigarettes in the country.” On bidis, it held: “The Committee strongly feel that the Government need to re-consider their decision to cover bidi industry under the amended rules and recommend that a practical approach in the matter may be adopted by increasing the size of warning up to 50% on one side of the bidi pack, chewing tobacco and other tobacco, products namely zarda, khaini, misri etc. which will be feasible to follow and which would also ensure that a large number of people in the trade will be saved from being rendered unemployed.”
Who went to the Supreme Court?
The Karnataka Bidi Association had approached the apex court against the notification on the bigger pictorial warnings. “Tobacco manufacturers have a duty towards the society. Bigger pictorial warnings on tobacco products are necessary to educate people. They should know about its effect on health,” observed a Bench of Justice P C Ghose and Justice Amitava Roy.