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“Are the Public Apology Ads as Big as Your Ads against Allopathy Medicines?” SC asks Patanjali

“Are the Public Apology Ads as Big as Your Ads against Allopathy Medicines?” SC asks Patanjali

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Apr 23: The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed reservations over the size of the advertisements published in newspapers containing public apology of the Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev and the managing director of the Patanjali Ayurved Acharya Balkrishna for the earlier alleged misleading ads against other systems of medicine, particularly allopathy.

“Were the apology ads as big and prominent as the previous misleading ads,” the court asked if Patanjali Ayurved’s apology published in newspapers was as big and expensive as its usual “front page” advertisements for herbal drugs.

The apex court also sought an explanation from the union health ministry why was rule 170 removed from the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, for taking actions against objectionable and misleading advertisements. “What weighed on you to do this?” the court asked the Centre.

Actually, the disarmament of Rule 170 was quoted by Patanjali as an excuse to continue with their advertisements. The company had found the remaining Law against objectionable advertisements – Drugs and Magic Remedies Act of 1954 – “archaic.”

The court also did not spare the Indian Medical Association (IMA), the petitioner who had moved Supreme Court against Patanjali. The court said it would look into the phenomenon of inflated bills and doctors allegedly prescribing over-priced medicine brands in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies. This portion of the case was scheduled to May 7 for hearing.

Hearing the misleading ads case against Patanjali Ayurved, the Bench of Justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah told the company’s advocate Mukul Rohtagi, “We want to see the newspaper in the original. Which page, where it was published, etc, We want to see,” Justice Amanullah told the senior lawyer. The Bench gave Mr Rohatgi time till April 30 to file the original papers.

The Bench demanded to know if the size of an apology it put out in newspapers on Tuesday was similar to its full-page advertisements of its products. Mr Rohatgi, appearing for Patanjali founders Ramdev and Balkrishna, said they have filed a fresh set of apologies before the court.

The bench asked why the apologies were filed yesterday and that it should have been done earlier. Mr Rohatgi said the apology was published in 67 newspapers at a cost of ₹ 10 lakh. “Has the apology been published prominently? Same font and size as your earlier advertisements?” Justice Hima Kohli asked. When Mr Rohatgi said the company had spent lakhs, the court replied, “We are not bothered.”

The company Patanjali Ayurved, Baba Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna are facing contempt action from the Supreme Court for publishing objectionable and misleading advertisements about their ayurvedic products.

They had even violated an undertaking given to the Supreme Court in November last year to stop these advertisements. The court has so far been unhappy with their affidavits expressing regret over their actions. In the previous hearing, the three contemnors had promised to take steps to redeem themselves, indicating they would publicly apologise in the media.

Appearing before a Bench for the trio, Mr Rohatgi said the apology was published in 67 newspapers. “Tens of lakhs” were spent to convey their regret for misleading the public. “But is your apology the same size as the advertisements you normally issue in newspapers? Did it not cost you ‘tens of lakhs’ to put front-page advertisements?” Justice Kohli asked Mr Rohatgi.

The Supreme Court adjourned the matter for a week after Ramdev said he would publish a bigger apology in newspapers. Justice Kohli said, “Please cut out the ads and then supply it to us. Do not enlarge them and supply it to us. We want to see the actual size. This is our direction… we want to see that when you issue an ad, it does not mean we have to see it by a microscope.”

The Bench said it did not want to see “blown-up” copies of the published apology. “We want to see the newspaper in the original. Which page, where it was published, etc, We want to see,” Justice Amanullah told the senior lawyer.

The court accused the Centre of possible double-speak on the availability of laws to investigate and prosecute companies who resort to misleading advertisements. The court sought an explanation from the AYUSH Ministry for the sudden “omission” of Rule 170, which dealt with the power to take action against objectionable advertisements, from the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945.

The court said the government’s own expert body had recommended Rule 170, only for the Centre to inexplicably remove the regulation later on. “Your own Minister of State assures in Parliament the need to protect consumers and initiate action against objectionable advertisements… then you go on to remove Rule 170. What weighed on you to do this?” Justice Kohli sought an explanation from the Centre.

Justice Kohli said these advertisements ‘take the public for a ride, particularly families, affecting their health. The issue concerns even the health of babies and school children.” The judge said there were several Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies going this way.”

“Have these FMCGs been identified? There have been advertisements misrepresenting products for babies… This is under the scrutiny of the Union government. If these advertisements target babies and children, if that is happening, the Union has to activate itself,” Justice Kohli underscored.

Justice Kohli pointed out that the Advertising Standards Council of India had flagged 948 objectionable advertisements to the AYUSH Ministry in the past two years. “What follow-up action did you take on this?” the judge asked

The court widened its ambit to implead the Ministries of Consumer Affairs and Information and Broadcasting as parties in the case. “The other day a channel was flashing news of this hearing while part of the screen was also showing the advertisement of the company… What an irony” Justice Amanullah said.

The court noted that it has received an application seeking a ₹ 1000 crore fine against the Indian Medical Association (IMA) for its case against Patanjali. “Is it a proxy plea? We suspect,” the bench said, as Mr Rohatgi stressed his clients have nothing to do with it.

Hours ahead of the Supreme Court hearing, Patanjali Ayurved put out an apology in national dailies, stressing that they have utmost respect for the court and that their mistakes will not be repeated.

In an ad, Patanjali said it has utmost respect for the Supreme Court’s statue. “We tender our heartfelt apology for the mistakes committed in publishing ads and holding press conferences despite the assurances by our counsel. We are committed not to repeat this mistake,” the ad read.

The matter dates back to the Covid years, when Patanjali launched a drug, Coronil, in 2021 and Ramdev described it as the “first evidence-based medicine for COVID-19”. Patanjali also claimed that Coronil had certification from the World Health Organization, but the Indian Medical Association called this a “blatant lie”.

The face-off between the medical body and Patanjali escalated after a video of Ramdev, in which he was heard saying that allopathy was a “stupid and bankrupt science,” went viral. The IMA sent a legal notice to Ramdev and sought an apology. Patanjali Yogpeeth responded that Ramdev was reading out from a forwarded WhatsApp message and has no ill-will against modern science.

In August 2022, IMA moved a petition against Patanjali after it published an advertisement in newspapers titled ‘Misconceptions Spread By Allopathy: Save Yourself And The Country From The Misconceptions Spread By Pharma And Medical Industry.’ The ad claimed that Patanjali drugs had cured people of diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid, liver cirrhosis, arthritis and asthma.

The doctors’ body said the “continuous, systematic, and unabated spread of misinformation” comes alongside Patanjali’s efforts to make false claims about curing certain diseases through use of Patanjali products.

On November 21 last year, the Supreme Court warned Patanjali against such claims and threatened to slap heavy fines. Patanjali’s counsel, court documents say, then assured that “henceforth, there shall not be any violation of any of the laws, especially relating to advertisement and branding of products.”

On January 15 this year, the Supreme Court received an anonymous letter addressed to Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud with copies marked to Justice Kohli and Justice Amanullah. The letter mentioned misleading advertisements Patanjali continued to put out. IMA’s counsel, Senior Advocate PS Patwalia, also showed the court newspaper advertisements after the November 21, 2023 warning and transcript of a press conference by Ramdev and Balkrishna after the court’s hearing. The court then sought a reply from Patanjali on why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against it.



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