On Patanjali Misleading Ads Case, Supreme Court's Tough Questions For Centre

Rule 170 of the Drugs and Magical Remedies Act required companies making Ayurvedic, Siddha, and Unani medicinal preparations to obtain clearances from the state licensing authority before running ads.

Patanjali Ayurved was co-founded by Baba Ramdev in 2006 (File).

New Delhi:

The Supreme Court had some tough questions for the centre and the Indian Medical Association Tuesday as it continued a marathon hearing into the IMA's claim of misleading advertisements by Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Ayurved, including those for Coronil, a preparation touted as a "cure" for COVID-19.

To begin with, Justice Hima Kohli and Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah wanted to know why the government had omitted Rule 170 from the Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, or DMR, which prohibits ads of medicines as products with "magical" abilities.

Rule 170 had been inserted in the DMR in 2018 to check claims made by companies, including Patanjali, selling ayurvedic preparations. In August last year, however, the AYUSH Ministry made a surprising U-turn, based on a special technical board's inputs, and recommended its omission.

Additionally, authorities were told not to take action under this rule.

Specifically, Rule 170 required companies making Ayurvedic, Siddha, and Unani medicinal preparations to obtain clearances from the state licensing authority before running advertisements.

The irate Supreme Court - which over the past weeks has grilled Ramdev and Patanjali co-founder Acharya Balakrishna over the size and substance of apologies for running misleading ads - wanted to know why the centre backtracked and noted "it looks like authorities were busy looking at revenue".

"AYUSH Ministry issued a letter to all states regarding Rule 170... and now you want to withdraw (it)? Minister of State submitted in Parliament that you have taken steps against such ads... and now you say Rule 170 will not be given effect to?" the court asked the centre. "Can you put on hold exercise of a law when it is in power? Is it not colorable exercise of power and violation of law?"

READ | "Apology Same Size As Ads?" Supreme Court Grills Ramdev

"You (the centre) decided to change your stand. The rule was for running ads by you... and now (you) say the ad need not be cross-checked?" Justice Kohli said sharply, observing to the petitioner - the Indian Medical Association - "... you should have impleaded the Consumer Affairs Ministry (too)".

"It looks like the authorities were very busy looking at the revenue," the court said.

The court also referred to a moment where one of Patanjali's advertisement featured on a TV news channel even as the anchor was reporting on the trial. "What a situation!" Justice Amanullah declared, as his colleague pointed to recent concerns over the safety of popular FMCG products asked, "You (the centre) identified fault-lines and told states... but what did you do on your own?"

"The centre should also tell us about steps regarding other FMCGs..." Justice Amanullah said.

The court's observations on this point came after Hong Kong and Singapore authorities red-flagged the presence of ethylene oxide - a cancer-causing compound - in four products from two globally popular spice brands, Everest and MDH. The centre has now ordered testing of all such products.

READ | Centre Acts After Spice Brands Recalled In Hong Kong, Singapore

Earlier this month Nestle, the world's largest consumer goods firm, was found to have added excess sugar in baby food products, which is a violation of international guidelines aimed at preventing obesity and chronic diseases. These violations were found only in Asian, African, and LatAm nations.

READ | Nestle Adds 3 gm Sugar In Cerelac Sold In India: Report

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, didn't just cast its net over the centre, but also questioned the original petitioner - the IMA - over potential laxity in standards for ads for allopathic medical products.

"Point out what the advertising (standards) council did to counter such ads and the members who endorsed such products. We are (now) not looking at respondents alone... we are looking at children, babies, women. No one can be taken for a ride..."

"We are asking questions to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as co-respondents. State licensing authorities across the country will also be added as parties and they too need to answer certain questions..." the court said sternly.

The court also pulled up the IMA and said the medical body "needs to put its own house in order regarding alleged unethical acts... where expensive and unnecessary medicines are prescribed".

The court reminded the IMA - as children across the country are reprimanded - that in pointing a finger at Patanjali, the other four were pointing back at them.

"Whenever there is misuse of the position by the petitioner association to prescribe expensive medicines and the line of treatment needs closer examination..." the court said.

The next hearing in this case will be next week.

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