NEW DELHI - The government Wednesday assured the Supreme Court that it would ensure pictorial warnings like the skull and cross bones or a cancer-disfigured face were carried on the packets of cigarettes and other tobacco products from May 31.
Additional Solicitor General Gopal Subramaniam told the bench of Justice B.N. Agrawal and Justice G.S. Singhvi that the government will not defer beyond May 31 the implementation of the law mandating pictorial warnings on cigarette packets.
‘The Union of India undertakes to implement the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products (Packing and Labeling) Rules, 2008, from May 31, 2009,’ the government’s law officer said.
‘Its implementation will not be further delayed in any case,’ he added.
Approving of the government’s commitment, the bench ruled: ‘No court in the country can pass an order that might hinder the implementation of the law.’
The rider came on a plea by senior counsel Indira Jaisingh, who said that the powerful tobacco lobbies that had been behind repeated deferments of the law’s implementation for the last three years might still delay this.
The government’s undertaking came during the hearing of a lawsuit by NGO Health for Millions seeking implementation of the law on pictorial warnings on the packets of all tobacco products. The pictorial warning would occupy 40 percent of the space on the front of all packets.
The undertaking came a day after the court queried the government on Jaisingh’s charge that despite a Group of Ministers (GoM) at its meeting Feb 3 deciding that the pictorial warning should be carried on both sides of the packet, the government notification only provided for this on the front.
Jaisingh contended that this was due to the pressure of the tobacco lobby and was much against the wishes of former health minister A. Ramados, a staunch supporter of the ‘No Smoking’ cause.
Thereafter, the bench Tuesday sought the minutes of the Feb 3 GoM meeting.
Producing these in the court Wednesday, Subramaniam explained that though the agenda mentioned that the displays would be on both sides of packets, the minutes of the meeting did not specify this.
The GoM chairman had wanted to convene another meeting to rectify the lacunae but this did not happen due to the paucity of the time in the run-up to the general elections, Subramaniam said, adding that had another meeting been convened, the May 31 deadline would have been missed.
Lauding the court order, Bhavana Mukhopadyay, director (Health Promotion) at the Voluntary Health Association of India, said: ‘Since the 2006 act (mandating pictorial warnings) was passed, the issue was being diluted or delayed for one reason or another. Even now, had the Supreme Court not stepped in, there would have been further delay.’
‘There is no question of any hiccups now. Whichever government comes to power (after the general elections) will have to follow the court’s order and the warnings will be there from June 1. And then, there is the injunction that no court can pass an order inconsistent with today’s order,’ Mukhopadyay told IANS.
P.C. Gupta, director of the Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, said: ‘It is most unfortunate that the GoM, since its constitution in early 2007, had delayed the implementation of the law for two whole years, not to mention having diluted the stronger warning for a milder one.’
According to a health ministry official, the pictorial warnings are a crucial step to protect the public from the hazards of tobacco and second-hand smoke, and to reduce the use of tobacco by the youth.