Wed, Jan 31, 2018 - Page 11 News List

India seeking to stub out trading rights of tobacco

ROMAN LEGAL DOCTRINE:The government has asked the Indian Supreme Court to declare tobacco to be ‘outside commerce,’ as it did with alcohol in the 1970s

Reuters, NEW DELHI

The Indian government is pushing the Indian Supreme Court to apply a rarely used doctrine that would strip the US$11 billion tobacco industry’s legal right to trade, an effort aimed at deterring tobacco companies from challenging tough new regulations.

New Delhi has for the first time asked the top court to classify tobacco as “res extra commercium,” a Latin phrase meaning “outside commerce,” according to a Reuters review of previously unreported on Jan. 8 court filing by the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

If applied, the doctrine — which harkens back to Roman law — would have far reaching implications: in denying an industry’s legal standing to trade, it gives authorities more leeway to impose restrictions.

For example, the Supreme Court’s application of the doctrine to alcohol in the 1970s paved the way for at least two Indian states to ban it completely and allowed courts to take a stricter stance while regulating liquor — something constitutional law experts say could happen with tobacco if a similar ruling was made.

“The effects of tobacco are much more than even alcohol... It will be a fillip to this drive against tobacco,” said government lawyer R. Balasubramanian, who is acting on behalf of the ministry in pursuing the designation.

However, the government is not discussing banning tobacco and the goal of invoking the Roman doctrine was only to curtail the industry’s legal rights, he said.

With an aim to curb tobacco consumption — which kills more than 900,000 people each year in India — the government has in recent years raised tobacco taxes, started smoking cessation campaigns and introduced laws requiring covering most of the package in health warnings.

However, a court in southern Karnataka state last month quashed those labeling rules after the tobacco industry successfully argued the measure was “unreasonable” and violated its right to trade.

The government this month appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which put on hold the Karnataka court order. The top court will next hear the case on March 12.

In its filing, the government included “res extra commercium” because it wants to stop the industry from pursuing such arguments again, Balasubramanian said.

Seeking to apply the doctrine to tobacco, the government said it should have the power “to regulate business and to mitigate evils” to safeguard public health, the court filing showed.

Sajan Poovayya, a senior lawyer representing top Indian cigarette maker ITC Ltd and Godfrey Phillips India — Philip Morris International Inc’s local partner — said the industry’s legal rights would be severely limited if the court applies the doctrine to tobacco.

Poovayya said he would fight the government’s argument “tooth and nail” and make a case that taking away the industry’s right to trade would imperil millions of Indian farmers who depend on tobacco for their living.

The industry estimates 45.7 million people in India depend on tobacco for their living.

“India is a tobacco growing country and there’s a need to look at the interest of those people who are already in the sector,” Poovayya said. “Tobacco is not destructive to health. If tobacco is, sugar is as well.”

ITC and Godfrey Phillips, as well as the ministry, did not respond to requests for comment.

India’s tobacco labeling rules, which mandate 85 percent of a cigarette pack’s surface be covered in health warnings, have been a sticking point between the government and the tobacco industry since they were enforced in 2016.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top