Cigarette packets will carry bigger health warnings in keeping with new rules, the Supreme Court told manufacturers on Wednesday in what is being seen as a setback to the Rs 70,000-crore tobacco industry.
The firms will have to adhere to the regulations, which require health warnings to cover 85% of the packet from 20% earlier, till the Karnataka high court decides on their validity.
“Pictorial warning is there to educate people and tobacco industry has a duty to inform society about the harms of tobacco,” the court said.
Along with written warnings, packets will carry images of diseased lungs and mouth tumours, aimed at deterring smokers in a country where one million people die from tobacco-related disease every year.
Health experts warn that tobacco will account for 13% of all deaths in India by 2020.
A bench of justice PC Ghose and justice Amitava Roy also ordered that all such cases be transferred to Karnataka high court, which was given eight weeks to decide the matter.
To avoid conflicting judgments, the top court barred other high courts from hearing a challenge to the rules, which were to come into force from April 1, 2015 but were delayed.
“It is expected that all petitioners will comply with the 2014 amendment rule. They should not violate any rule prevailing as of today,” the court said, setting aside the Karnataka high court’s Dharwad bench order putting on hold bigger warnings.
The petitioners, which include bidi-makers, have challenged the regulations as too harsh and impossible to implement.
Factories were shut in protest when the new regime kicked in. Following Wednesday’s ruling, shares of India’s biggest cigarette maker ITC Ltd ended down 1.29%. Godfrey Phillips shares were down marginally.
The tobacco industry has fallen back on a parliamentary panel report, saying the warnings should be increased to 50%. Companies also claim ambiguity over the new requirements.
The regulations were aimed at reducing tobacco consumption, the government’s senior law officer said. “There should be no stay on their implementation,” solicitor general Ranjit Kumar said.
Despite bans on advertising, sale to minors and smoking in public places, more than one in three adults use smoking and smokeless tobacco in India, where 75, 000 to 80, 000 new cases of oral cancer are reported a year.