The Supreme Court has once again ensured that public health overrides commercial interests. The court’s intervention a few days ago brought to an end an eight-year delay in vacating the Bombay High Court’s stay in implementing point of sale rules on tobacco and tobacco products. Though the High Court has to still adjudicate the case, the manner in which the apex court faulted it for “passing the impugned orders” leaves no doubt that the 2004 statute, as amended in 2005, will not be struck down. Coming down heavily on the government’s lackadaisical attitude, a clearly enraged Supreme Court bench noted that the manner in which the government handled the matter in the High Court was “quite intriguing.” With all other avenues for promoting their products shut, tobacco companies had effectively used the last few opportunities to continue reaching out to their target audience. Captivating display boards placed strategically at the entrance to, and inside, shops helped them target vulnerable young people, and strengthen bonds with existing users. After all, the use of display boards and placards is one of the time-tested strategies used by marketers. The only difference is that the products advertised consist of harmful material rolled in paper or packed in sachets and sold as cigarettes and pan masala. Together, they kill one million people every year in India.

The rules allow only 60 cm by 45 cm boards without colour, brand names, logos, promotional messages, pictures or special illuminations to be used. The board shall only list the type of tobacco products available, and a sizeable portion at the top would carry a health warning to put off new customers and inform and dissuade existing users. However, what use are the restrictions on display boards when tobacco products displayed strategically on shop shelves themselves communicate a harmful message most powerfully and effectively? That the government has not been serious and sincere in preventing point of sale promotion becomes evident from the way the rules have been ambiguously and vaguely framed. They state that tobacco products shall not be displayed in such a way that they are visible, “so as to prevent easy access to persons below the age of 18 years.” Though in practice there is no way of complying with this rule while displaying the product, it provides ample scope for shops to violate the law but still argue that they are not falling foul of the law. The government should, therefore, follow the WHO’s recommendation by banning product display and “keeping tobacco out of public view.” It will result in fewer youths taking to smoking and also “reduce impulse purchases among adults wanting to quit.”

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