India’s top cigarette-maker ITC, part-owned by British American Tobacco, said it was not ready to print bigger health warnings on its packs as mandated by the government and will keep its factories shut until clarity emerges on the new rules.
ITC’s comments highlight the latest tussle between India’s $10 billion-cigarette industry and the government after new rules kicked in on Friday, mandating pictorial warnings should cover 85% of a pack’s surface, up from 20% now.
A parliamentary panel last year forced the government to delay the new rules, saying it was assessing how the industry would be impacted. But the health ministry later said the warnings must be adopted on April 1.
The panel of lawmakers last month called for reducing the size of warnings to 50% to protect the interests of the industry and tobacco farmers.
ITC said the health ministry’s push to go ahead with its rule was “contrary to its earlier decision to await the (parliamentary) committee’s findings”.
“The industry was led to believe that the government would re-notify new health warnings after considering the committee’s recommendations,” ITC said in its statement.
Insisting that “the question of the legality of the new warnings has been and continues to be pending before the court”, ITC said it “did not commit to wasting substantial resources in creating large number of cylinders and other tools necessary for a change-over of the warnings”.
Health ministry officials could not be reached for a comment on Saturday. A senior official had told Reuters on Friday the government was committed to implementing new rules.
A leading industry body had said on Friday that cigarette makers, including ITC and its rival Godfrey Phillips India Ltd, which is a partner of US-based Philip Morris International, suspended production as the new policy created confusion.
Smoking kills about 1 million people in India each year, BMJ Global Health estimates. The World Health Organization has called the debate on reducing the warnings size in India “worrisome”.
(With inputs from PTI)