India moves to deny tobacco industry’s right to trade

THE Indian government is pushing the supreme court to apply a rarely used doctrine that would strip the $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 review of previously unreported court fil­ing by the Health Ministry on Janu­ary 8. 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.  

“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 of Health in pursu­ing the designation.  

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

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.  

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

The government this month ap­pealed the ruling in the supreme court which put on hold the Karna­taka court order. The top court will next hear the case on March 12.  

ITC and Godfrey Phillips, as well as India’s health ministry, did not respond to requests for comment.