On Wednesday, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the tobacco industry. The apex court asked the tobacco makers to strictly adhere to government rules that require bigger and more prominent health warnings on cigarette packs.
The ruling came as a major setback for the $11 billion industry that opposes the new government policy.
The court also turned down an industry plea to stay the implementation of the new tobacco-control rules introduced from April 1, which require health warnings to cover 85 percent of a cigarette pack’s surface, up from 20 percent earlier.
The tobacco industry “should not violate any rule prevailing as of today,” the two-judge bench said during the 45-minute hearing.
The court also directed the High Court of Karnataka to hear dozens of pleas filed against the new rules in several Indian courts and decide on the matter within six weeks.
“Today, the Supreme Court has ordered the consolidation of all these cases in one High Court that is the Karnataka High Court. It has said that the Karnataka High Court should finally decide the matter but in the meantime all these tobacco companies have to implement this notification of 85 per cent pack warning. Today, many of these companies are flouting this notification which will now amount to contempt of court,” said lawyer Prashant Bhushan after the hearing.
Last month, some tobacco companies briefly shut down production as the new rules came into effect. According to the industry, the new policy is impractical which will in turn boost cigarette smuggling.
But the government still backs the rules that are aimed at reducing tobacco consumption.
Solicitor General of India Ranjit Kumar told the court that New Delhi was committed to the new rules and opposes any stay on their implementation.
Shares of India’s biggest cigarette maker ITC Ltd, partly owned by British American Tobacco, fell nearly 1 percent after the court directive.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco-related diseases cost India $16 billion annually. Another study BMJ Global Health has estimated that 1 million people die in India every year because of smoking.