Tobacco advertising has been highlighted by the Delhi High Court, who have directed authorities to take action on the controversial and illegal practice.
The High Court issued a notice to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; the Government of India; the state government in Delhi; the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights; and the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights concerning a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by social worker Dipesh Jha. The suit named MAHAK Group as the respondent, alleging it to be illicitly marketing a tobacco product, Chaini Khaini through ‘surrogate advertisement’ in direct contravention of existing regulations at both the national and the global level.
In India, tobacco advertising — whether direct or indirect — is prohibited as per the 2003 Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA). However, commentators have in the past expressed concern over a perceived ‘ambiguity’ in tobacco advertising regulations in the country.
Chaini Khaini is a relatively recent phenomenon in India. “Chaini Khaini, which is labelled as snus and is marketed as a safe alternative to other tobacco products contains very high levels of carcinogenic nitrosamines and biologically available nicotine,” explains an article published in 2015 in the journal Tobacco Control. “Interventions are urgently needed to educate current and potential consumers of this product.” In recent years, forms of snus such as Chaini Khaini have been aggressively promoted by international tobacco firms.
The PIL filed before the Delhi High Court suggests that advertising of Chaini Khaini has the potential to mislead consumers, lending the impression that it is in fact a herbal product that carries health benefits. Furthermore, the product is marketing in a manner which does not adhere to the regulations mandating that they display warnings about the risks of tobacco consumption to health, as the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare requires by law.
The suit charged the respondent company with numerous violations in addition to promulgating tobacco ads. Tax evasion, impugning workers’ safety owing to vulnerabilities to their health, pollution, child labour, failing to pay wages, and lacking an appropriate system of waste management are the other infringements being levelled at the company.
Tobacco companies have been criticised in the past for its practices related to advertising. Big Tobacco has been accused of attempting to entice children and encourage them to engage in the habit through tobacco advertising, which has been castigated by the medical and public health communities. Such efforts have been deemed ‘a sinister plan to demolish India’s tobacco control efforts.’ With the PIL taking aim at yet another instance of tobacco advertising perceived to be in contravention of both the law and the public health good, and the Delhi High Court demanding a response from the actors cited, the issue clearly persists and remains in the public crosshairs.
A response to the PIL is expected by March 11th. The Union Health Ministry may face costs if it refuses to do so, the Delhi High Court has said.