Cracking down on companies that sell pan masala and tobacco in separate pouches to circumvent the gutkha ban, the Supreme Court has made clear that it has banned the sale of all forms of chewable tobacco and nicotine, and directed authorities, including the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), to strictly enforce its directions.
A bench of Justices V Gopala Gowda and Adarsh K Goel underlined regulation 2.3.4 of the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition & Restrictions on Sales) Regulations, 2011, and noted that the prohibition on sale of products with tobacco and nicotine must be put into effect immediately.
Regulation 2.3.4 states: ''Product not to contain any substance which may be injurious to health: Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products.''
The court order on Friday, sources in the FSSAI told The Indian Express, will enable the food regulator and other enforcement agencies in the government to prosecute companies that have resorted to an ingenious way of ensuring that sales continue despite the 2011 regulation.
Contending that the notifications restrained them only from selling gutkha (raw betel nut mixed with tobacco), various companies had started selling pan masala paired with a separate sachet of tobacco.
The issue was highlighted by senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, who pointed out that although the regulation was not stayed by any court, its enforcement was lacklustre. Subramanium has been appointed as amicus curiae in the batch of petitions relating to ban on sale of gutkha and pan masala.
The senior lawyer also referred to a submission by the ministry of health and family welfare that manufacturers and tobacco companies were circumventing the ban imposed under the notifications.
''Instead of the earlier ready-to-consume mix, tobacco companies are now selling gutkha in twin packs to be mixed as one,'' said Subramanium, adding that what was required was firm implementation of the FSSAI regulation that provided for a complete ban on products with tobacco and nicotine.
Accepting his plea, the bench passed the order, ''In view of the above, concerned statutory authorities are directed to comply with the above mandate of law. We also direct the Secretaries, Health Departments of all the States and Union Territories to file their affidavits before the next date of hearing on the issue of total compliance of the ban imposed on manufacturing and sale of gutkha and pan masala with tobacco and/or nicotine.'' The court will hear the case next in November.
According to Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, about 35 per cent of adults in India consume tobacco in some form or the other. The estimated number of tobacco users in India is 27.5 crore, with 16.37 crore users of smokeless tobacco, 6.9 crore smokers and 4.23 crore users of both smoking and smokeless tobacco.
Further, a report released in 2014 by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute found that users in India and Bangladesh make up 80 per cent of the total smokeless tobacco users in the world.
Another report by the health ministry had estimated the total economic cost attributable to tobacco use from all diseases in 2011 amounted to Rs1,04,500 crore in India, equivalent to 1.04 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.