Patanjali case: SC expands scrutiny of misleading ads to include allopathic practices | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Patanjali case: SC expands scrutiny of misleading ads to include allopathic practices

Apr 23, 2024 01:25 PM IST

The court admonished Patanjali for spreading misinformation that could undermine public trust in the health care system

The Supreme Court on Tuesday broadened its judicial scrutiny into misleading health advertisements, extending its focus from Patanjali Ayurved to include certain “alleged unethical practices” among doctors practicing modern medicines, emphasising that its actions were not targeted solely at yoga guru Ramdev and his enterprise, Patanjali, but motivated by broader concerns for public welfare.

Yoga guru Ramdev at the Supreme Court for a hearing on the Patanjali misleading advertisements case on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
Yoga guru Ramdev at the Supreme Court for a hearing on the Patanjali misleading advertisements case on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)

“We must clarify that we aren’t here to gun for a particular company or authority. Our endeavour is to act in the public interest against FMCGs (Fast-moving consumer goods) and drug companies that have been misleading the public. It’s a part of the process of the rule of law,” said a bench of justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah.

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As it heard a contempt case against Ramdev and Patanjali’s managing director Balkrishna on disobeying court orders that forbade Patanjali Ayurved from running misleading advertisements on health cures, the court decided to widen the scope of the matter to encompass the practitioners of modern medicine — it is often referred to as allopathy in India, who are accused of prescribing unnecessary and expensive medicines. The court highlighted allegations that some allopathic practitioners may be influenced more by pharmaceutical affiliations than by patient welfare.

Putting the Indian Medical Association (IMA) in the dock, the bench asked the association to bring on record the actions taken by it on the complaints received against doctors prescribing expensive and unnecessary medicines in lieu of valuable considerations. The IMA is the complainant in the case against Patanjali, demanding contempt action against Ramdev and Balkrishna for violating the court’s earlier directives on misleading advertisements and an undertaking given by Patanjali in this regard.

“We are of the opinion that the petitioner association also needs to put its house in order. There are several complaints of the alleged unethical activities of the members of the association regarding recommending highly expensive medicines and extraneous medicines, besides prescribing line of treatment for valuable considerations,” the bench said in its order, directing senior counsel PS Patwalia, representing the IMA, to provide necessary information on actions taken by it against its members.

While making the National Medical Commission (NMC) also a party in the case, the bench told the IMA: “While petitioners are pointing fingers at respondents, four fingers are pointing at them. If that’s happening, why should we not turn the beam at you? We can’t let the public be taken for a ride. There are children and babies involved. Your doctors also endorse medicines in the allopathic field...You have to tell us what you have done as an in-house exercise to prevent abuse. They are your members. You have to have an effective control.”

Meanwhile, senior counsels Mukul Rohatgi and Balbir Singh asked for a week more to publish a fresh public apology in the media, after the bench questioned whether the apology published by Patanjali were “as big as their advertisements” on health cures. The lawyers said they would bring on record the public apology published in 67 publications before the next hearing on April 30. In addition, they said Patanjali will also publish a fresh apology, ensuring they are suitable in size.

“Cut the actual newspaper clippings and keep them handy. For you to photocopy by enlarging, it may not impress us. We want to see the actual size of the ad. When you issue an apology, it does not mean that we have to see it by a microscope...somebody in the dock has to come clean,” it told the lawyers representing the leaders of Patanjali Ayurved.

During the hearing, the top court also made Union ministries of information & technology, consumer affairs and drug commissioners of all states and Union Territories (UTs) parties to the matter, concerns about the ethical standards of healthcare advertising and the influence of commercial interests on medical practices.

It asked additional solicitor general KM Nataraj, appearing for the Centre, to submit an explanation regarding a recommendation made by the Ayurvedic Siddha and Unani Drugs Technical Advisory Board (ASUBTAB) for the omission of Rule 170 that dealt with controlling inappropriate advertisements and was previously brought into the central government notified amendment of the Drugs & Cosmetics Rules, 1945, in December 2018.

“On one hand, your minister says on the floor of the House that you will be taking effective steps against misleading ads. On the other hand, you are amending the regulation in this regard...Can you issue a rule in violation of a statute? Is it not arbitrary or a colourable exercise of power? Will it not amount to abetting something wrong?” the bench asked the Centre.

It told the ASG that the proceedings were not limited to just one FMCG or a drug company and that the court was going “to look at the larger picture”.

“We make it clear that the proceedings are not just limited to the respondent (Patanjali) but all similarly situated FMCGs and drug companies issuing advertisements and taking the public for a ride, in particular babies, school going children, women and senior citizens,” the court said in its order.

Seeking a detailed response from the Centre, the court order cited the letter issued by the Ministry of AYUSH in August 2023 to all states and UTs, conveying the decision to accept the ASUBTAB’s recommendations, and asking the authorities not to initiate action against any entity under Rule 170 of Drugs & Cosmetics Rules.

The court asked the Centre and the states and UTs to submit their responses before May 7 when the issues regarding regulatory framework to prevent misleading advertisements and unethical medical practices will be taken up separately. It asked the state drug commissioners to also submit statistics regarding action taken against drug companies since 2018.

In a series of previous hearings on the IMA’s petition complaining against Ramdev’s contentious comments about modern medicine and allegedly misleading advertisements about Patanjali products, the Supreme Court expressed grave concern and emphasised the need for responsible discourse, especially during a pandemic like Covid-19.

The court admonished Patanjali for spreading misinformation that could undermine public trust in the health care system and had recorded an undertaking by the company in November 2023 that it would stop running any misleading advertisements and issuing disparaging statements against modern or any other form of medicine.

However, the IMA came back to the bench with a video clip of a press conference held by Ramdev and Patanjali advertisements in national media merely a day after their undertaking in the court on November 21. Additionally, the association produced a series of advertisements branding Patanjali products as cure for several ailments, including hypertension and diabetes.

Irked by the contravention of its order and its own assurance, the court by its subsequent orders of February 27, March 19, April 2 and April 10 called Ramdev and Balkrishna in person, asking them to show cause why they should not be punished for contempt of court. They have since filed a pair of apology affidavits each, but the court has not found them satisfactory and bonafide.

On April 10, the bench lambasted Ramdev and Balkrishna, refusing to accept their unconditional apology for issuing misleading advertisements and saying the judges did not want to be “so generous” after the duo were caught on the wrong foot with their “back to the wall”. On the day, it also came down heavily on the Uttarakhand government, saying the authorities kept their “eyes shut” by not cracking down on the company for violating advertising rules by making false claims about curing diseases such as diabetes and asthma.

On April 16, when the matter was heard last, the bench directly interacted with Ramdev and Balkrishna, telling them their plea of innocence or inadvertence cannot be accepted right away after they chose to flout court orders despite previous judicial warnings as it gave them a week to take suitable steps “to redeem themselves” and demonstrate their remorse.

The court also reproached the Uttarakhand officials for acting “in cahoots” and failing to register cases against Patanjali for issuing advertisements promising cure for lifestyle and other specified ailments prohibited under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectional Advertisements) Act 1954, Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Rules 1955, and Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945.

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