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Reuters/Parivartan Sharma
Not big enough.
WHAT A DRAG

How India’s cigarette makers got their butts kicked for resisting graphic warnings on packets

By Suneera Tandon

A heads-up for smokers in India: your cigarette packet will soon be wrapped in a bigger, more graphic, health warning, especially if you are partial to those made by ITC.

After a month of back and forth, India’s largest cigarette maker has fallen in line with a health ministry notification that requires 85% of cigarette packets to be covered with pictorial health warnings. The Indian government is pushing for tighter regulations on sale of tobacco products, which cause over a million deaths in the country every year.

Although notified in October 2014, the new rules were to be implemented by April 2016. But cigarette makers kicked up a storm and halted production for over a month, arguing that complying with these rules was simply too difficult.

On April 2, for instance, ITC announced a temporary closure of its five plants. “The implementation of any change in the health warnings on the cigarette packages is an elaborate process for the manufacturers, entailing months of preparation involving substantial cost and effort,” the Kolkata-based company said in a statement (pdf).

A fortnight later, it briefly commenced operations on April 15, even as the Karnataka Beedi Industry Association—an industry body representing local beedi workers in the state—went to the Karnataka high court seeking a stay order on implementing the new rules.

The association argued that the new rules would adversely impact India’s tobacco industry, already struggling with growing taxation burden and an increasingly long list of regulations. Sale of tobacco products generates about Rs28,000 crore in excise duty and state taxes every year, according to the Tobacco Institute of India (TII), a lobbying body for cigarette makers.

Even as it awaited the Karnataka high court’s decision, ITC pulled down the shutters again on May 4.

However, the same day, India’s supreme court took a hard stand, directing all cigarette companies to follow the new rules on pictorial warnings as move “necessary to educate people.” “You have a duty towards the society,” a two-judge bench told industry members during a hearing.

Knuckles sharply rapped, on May 08, ITC announced that it will commence operations and print new graphical warnings packets. “ITC factories have resumed production in a phased manner with the specified 85% graphical warning pending a hearing by the Karnataka high court,” a company spokesperson said.

Other cigarette makers such as Godfrey Philips and VST Industries also temporarily halted production of tobacco products to oppose the government’s decision. But with the biggest player in India’s cigarette market now towing the line, the rest are likely to swiftly follow.