After repeated delays, displaying of statutory pictorial and health warnings on tobacco products will finally come into effect from 31 May, the government gave the assurance to the Supreme Court today, which passed an interim order till further hearing of the case.
The assurance was given by the additional solicitor general Gopal Subramanium to a Supreme Court bench based on a petition filed by an NGO 'Health for Millions' asking the court to direct the government to enforce its own 2006 rule of forcing tobacco companies to display pictorial warnings on all tobacco products.
Pictorial warnings on tobacco products are intended to increase consumer knowledge of the deadly health effects of tobacco consumption, to encourage cessation and to discourage uptake.
But the government, in its reply to a query filed under the Right to Information Act, admitted that due to the pressure exerted by the bidi industry and other interested parties, the group of ministers (GoM) constituted to look into the matter had recommended that the graphic pictorial warnings to be displayed on 50 per cent of both sides of a cigarette packets be reduced to 40 per cent and only on one side. (See: Government caves in to pressure on pictorial warnings from bidi makers lobby)
NGO Health for Millions counsel Indira Jaisingh had argued in the court that the government had originally wanted to display a skull-and-crossbone image on all tobacco products, which has now been diluted to depicting less dire X-ray images of lungs and the image of a scorpion. (See: Government dithers on implementing health warnings on tobacco products)
Pictorial warnings of the skull-and-crossbone image on tobacco products are intended to enlighten the smoker of the harmful effects of tobacco. With India having so many languages, this image breaks all linguistic barriers.
Former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss had campaigned to ban smoking in public places across India, with a ban coming into effect on 2 October 2008 to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
Ramadoss had alleged that the group of ministers constituted to look into the matter, had recommended changing the graphic pictorial warnings to be displayed on 50 per cent and both sides of all tobacco products be reduced to 40 per cent on only one side.
The Court has asked for the 3 February resoultion records of the GoM, which was chaired by Pranab Mukherjee, to be presented to the court on Wednesday.
Although the government has assured the court that 40 per cent of the front side of all tobacco products will carry the statutory pictorial and health warnings on tobacco products from 31 May, it is still not clear as to which pictorial images the tobacco companies will be displaying.
In the court hearing today, almost all the tobacco company's lawyers were present and said told the court that their clients advertising and packaging policies were well within the purview of the law.
Pictorial warnings are an effective tool internationally to combat tobacco addiction. Around 17 countries including Brazil, Australia, Canada, Chile, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Venezuela and a number of other developed nations have successfully introduced picture-based warnings and many of them have gorier images on the packs.