The Supreme Court on Wednesday told the tobacco industry to adhere to rules requiring stringent health warnings on cigarette packs, but ordered a state high court to hear all pleas challenging the same.
The tobacco industry “should not violate any rule prevailing as of today,” the two-judge bench said, and added that the Karnataka high court should hear all pleas challenging the new rules.
Last month, the 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 20%.
The tobacco industry has taken the government to court, saying the rules are impractical and will boost smuggling of imported cigarettes. The government backs the stringent rules to cut tobacco consumption.
The government has been progressively increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products aimed at making this costlier and wean people away from the harmful products.
A new rule, under which all tobacco manufactured products are required to carry larger pictorial health warnings covering 85% of the packaging space, kicked in from April 1. The move triggered howls of protest from the industry with tobacco companies arguing the rule will encourage illicit trade. Existing pictorial warnings at 40% of the front of the pack are adequate to warn and caution consumers, companies said.
According to WHO estimates, nearly a million people die in India annually due to tobacco. The economic burden attributable every year to tobacco-related diseases is about Rs 1,04,500 crore, about 75% of India’s food subsidy budget.
India is ranked 136 of 198 countries according to the international status report on Cigarette Package Health Warnings, 2014 and countries ranked after 143 do not display pictorial health warnings at all.
Smoking kills more than 1 million people a year in India, according to BMJ Global Health. The World Health Organisation says tobacco-related diseases cost India $16 billion annually.