NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court on Monday restrained Karnataka High Court’s order that quashed central government rules mandating larger pictorial health warnings on tobacco packages, in a setback for the country’s $11 billion tobacco industry.
The High Court of Karnataka state last month rolled down central government rules requiring 85 percent of a tobacco pack’s surface to be covered in health warnings, up from 20 percent earlier. The rules had been in force since 2016.
The Supreme Court, which heard petitions brought forward by tobacco-control activists, stayed the Karnataka court’s order on Monday, citing the need to protect the health of citizens.
A bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra stayed the HC order that not only had directed reduction of the pictorial warning on tobacco products to 40%, but also said that the alarming images of persons suffering from throat and mouth cancer should go.
The Supreme Court in its 13-page order said “Health of a citizen has primacy and he or she should be aware of the things which can affect or deteriorate the condition of their health.
The court’s decision came in the benefit of health advocates and central health ministry who say bigger health warnings deter tobacco consumption. More than 900,000 people die each year in India due to tobacco-related illnesses, the government estimates.
India’s tobacco packaging rules are among the world’s most stringent. A government survey last year found that 62 percent of cigarette smokers thought of quitting because of such warning labels on the packets.
The court's decision has made it difficult for the cigarette makers such as India's ITC Ltd and Philip Morris International Inc's Indian partner, Godfrey Phillips India Ltd, the representatives of which call the rules extreme, to generate revenue as well as expand their business in India. In protest at the health warning measures, the industry briefly shut its factories across the country in 2016 and filed dozens of legal cases.
On Monday the proceedings took place in the Supreme Court where both the sides were present to hear the proceedings. Kapil Sibal, an eminent lawyer who fought the case for the industry, requested the court to reduce the size of tobacco pack warnings. At one point, he cited the absence of health warnings on a glass of whisky to argue against such displays on tobacco products.
The attorney general of India, K. K. Venugopal, defended the government’s stringent rules, saying they were “one of the most progressive” steps to protect the health of people.
Further the proceedings will take place in Supreme Court on March 12