New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to stay the Pictorial Warning Rules of 2014 that require warnings to cover 85% of the surface area of tobacco packs sold in India. It said that the tobacco industry should take all steps to enforce the order and cannot violate the notification.
A Bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitav Roy passed this order on a batch of petitions challenging the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packing and Labelling) Amendment Rules, 2014, notified in January this year to come into effect from April 1, 2016.
Observing that the tobacco industry owed a duty to the society, the bench said the petitioners should not violate any rule prevailing as of today. The court directed that interim orders by different high courts across India (including Dharwad) staying the Rules, stand vacated. They also said that the previous order of Supreme Court of 2009 should not come in the way of deciding these rules by the high court.
Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the Centre informed the court that the Government of India supported the enforcement of the rules and all steps had been taken to implement the notification. He opposed grant of stay as sought by the tobacco industry.
The petitioners challenged the rules as ultra vires the Act in the high courts of Karnataka, Bombay, Delhi and Gujarat, and except in Dharwad bench of Karnataka they did not get relief from implementation. The Karnataka Beedi Manufacturers and others moved the Supreme Court for stay of the rules.
Senior counsel Arvin P. Datar, appearing for the Tobacco Institute of India submitted that subsequent to the notification the tobacco industry had come to a standstill and thousands of workers were rendered jobless across India. He argued that the amendment rules were ex-facie illegal, arbitrary and unreasonable and had been issued without jurisdiction.
He submitted that a Parliamentary standing committee had recommended that the cigarette packs should cover only 50% as against the present 40% but the government had notified that the warnings should cover 85% of the packs. He said the rules did not empower the government to prescribe the size of the warnings.
The Act, he said merely prescribes the warnings to be legible, prominent and conspicuous as to size and colour which is met by the warnings under the unamended 2008 rules.
Senior counsel Anand Grover, appearing for Health for Millions and counsel Prashant Bhushan for PIL petitioner strongly opposed grant of stay of the rules. They also said that the previous order of Supreme Court of 2009 should not come in the way of deciding these rules by the high court.
Taking note of the submissions, the bench in its brief order said that the petitioners should endeavour to implement the rules till the Karnataka high court, to which all petitions are transferred, rendered its final judgment. The stay granted by Dharwad bench shall not be implemented by the parties till the outcome of the petitions.
The bench asked the Karnataka high court to decide the petitions on merits in eight weeks without being influenced by the present order and said the chief justice could either post the matter to a single judge or to a division bench as per the high court rules. The bench asked the three other high courts to send records of the petitions to the Karnataka high court in two weeks.
It may be recalled that last month, Indian tobacco companies, some backed by foreign “Big Tobacco”, shut down production in protest against requirements that 85% of a cigarette pack’s surface be covered in health warnings, up from 40%. According to NGOs supporting the rules India has been praised because of the proven cost-effectiveness of graphic health warnings and because of the example its decisive action would set for other countries.
India is home to the largest youth population in the world, but she will only realise her potential demographic dividend if she can protect her citizens from suffering from disease and premature death during what should be their most productive years. Currently, there are one million premature tobacco-related deaths in India every year and an annual health cost of $22.4 billion. India’s youth face the highest (and increasing) rates of oral cancer in the world. Graphic health warnings sound a ringing alarm each time a tobacco user – whether current or prospective – reaches for that tobacco pack. The images warn of the imminent and real danger of using the product.