Health Professionals Slam Karnataka HC's Decision to Reduce Pictorial Warnings on Tobacco Packaging

The Karnataka high court struck down the rules that mandated pictorial health warnings to cover 85% of tobacco product packaging space.

New Delhi: The Karnataka high court on Friday struck down the 2014 amendment rules that mandated pictorial health warnings to cover 85% of tobacco product packaging space (front and back), saying that they violated constitutional norms.

However, the court made it clear that the 40% pictorial health warning rule, which existed prior to the amendment rules, would remain in force. A division bench of Justices B.S. Patil and B.V. Nagarathna passed the order on a batch of petitions filed by various tobacco manufacturing companies and others from across the country, challenging the 85% pictorial warning rule notified by the Union health ministry.

The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Amendment Rules, 2014 (COTPA) came into effect from April 1 last year. In May last year, the Supreme Court had transferred all petitions against the 85% rule filed in various high courts to the Karnataka high court and asked it to hear and dispose of them.

Passing the orders, the high court bench held that the Union health ministry does not have any jurisdictional power to make such rules. The court said even if the health ministry enjoyed power to make such rules, they violated constitutional norms as it was an “unreasonable restriction” on the right to do business.

From the perspective of tobacco growers, such a rule violated the right to equality under Article 14 of the constitution because there was no connection between the images and the warnings, the bench observed.

While health professionals and activists waited for the court’s order to be released in full, they expressed their dissatisfaction with the court’s decision and talked about the importance of pictorial warnings.

“The public health community is deeply anguished. Tobacco, the killer of 13 lakh innocent Indians and manufacturer of millions of widows and orphans, will rejoice today,” Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, professor at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, told The Wire. “The second round of Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2016-17 that the Union health ministry released put all apprehensions to rest with a section on the impact of large tobacco pack warnings, showing that 62% of cigarette smokers and 54% of beedi smokers thought of quitting because of warning labels on the packets…Health warnings on tobacco products are the most cost-effective tool for educating people on the health risks of tobacco use.”

Dr Monika Arora, additional professor at the Public Health Foundation of India, agreed with Chaturvedi on the importance of pictorial warnings. “We believe the measures initiated by the health ministry mandating large and effective pictorial health warnings on tobacco product packages have strong scientific rationale and great public health significance. GATS-2 results have shown positive impact of larger pictorial warnings as it motivated users to quit. We hope further legal review will restore these warnings.”

K.V. Dhananjay, advocate for the Cancer Patients Aid Association and one of the lawyers working on the case, said, “Taking the order to be what is reported in a small section of the media, Mr Narendra Modi’s ambitious goal of leading the world in fight against tobacco takes a massive body blow today. At 85%, India ranks at No .3 in the world [in terms of pictorial warnings on tobacco] while the failing Pakistan ranks at 106 with a 40% warning. Today’s judgment pushes India 103 places down – tying with Pakistan for the same spot of 106 in the world.”

“The contradiction in our mind also comes from the report that the court is supposed to have said two contradictory things in the same order – that the 85% pictorial warning is unconstitutional and that the central government is free to make a proper law to set right the infirmity. If a law is adjudged as unconstitutional on merits, it will still be unconstitutional even if remade; if the court found fault with procedural infirmity, it does not get into the constitutional merit of that law as courts do not unnecessarily look into the constitutional merit of any law unless the law is first found or presumed to be procedurally proper and lawful,” he continued.

(With PTI inputs)