After Patanjali, FMCG companies on radar of Supreme Court; IMA asked to put its house in order

The apex court asked the three Union ministries to inform it about the steps they have taken to curb the practice, which takes "public for a ride" and adversely affects their health.

BySumit Jha

Published Apr 24, 2024 | 8:05 AMUpdatedApr 24, 2024 | 8:05 AM

Supreme Court of India

Expanding the scope of its hearing in the Patanjali Ayurved case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, 23 April, took a stern view of misleading advertisements by FMCG firms.

The apex court asked three Union ministries to inform it about the steps taken to curb the practice, which takes “public for a ride” and adversely affects their health.

A bench of Justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah, while hearing the case related to misleading advertisements by Patanjali Ayurved Ltd, said that several other Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs) companies are also following the same path and said the Centre has to respond regarding the actions it has taken in response to the issue.

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‘Can’t just shrug your shoulders’

“We can’t let the public be taken for a ride,” the bench observed, adding, “If this (misleading advertisements) is happening, the Union of India needs to activate itself and so do the state licensing authorities”.

“You can’t just shrug your shoulders and say I have conveyed the complaint to the state authority and it is for them to do what they are doing,” the bench said.

While hearing the Patanjali case, the apex court said the implementation of the relevant provisions of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and the Consumer Protection Act and the related rules also needed a closer examination.

It said the issue was not limited to Patanjali but extended to all FMCG firms which have been issuing “misleading advertisements and taking the public for a ride, in particular affecting the health of babies, school-going children and senior citizens, who have been consuming products on the basis of the said misrepresentation”.

“We must clarify that we are not here to gun for a particular party or a particular agency or a particular authority. This is a PIL, and in the larger interest of the consumers, public should know which way they are going and how and why they can be misled, and how authorities are acting to prevent it,” the bench said.

The court asked the Union ministries of Consumer Affairs, Information and Broadcasting, and Information Technology to explain what action they have taken to prevent the misuse of consumer laws.

Also Read: SC raps Patanjali’s ‘stamp-sized’ apology for smear campaign

‘Put the house in order’

The bench asked the Indian Medical Association (IMA), the petitioner in the Patanjali advertisements case, to “put its house in order”.

It said that several complaints have been made about alleged unethical acts by members of the IMA, who prescribe highly expensive medicines and line of treatment.

The bench also ordered impleading the National Medical Commission (NMC) as a respondent in the matter for effective assistance to the court.

While the association is pointing fingers at Patanjali, “the other four fingers are also pointing at you (IMA),” the court told the IMA’s counsel.

“It is not going to be all just that there are FMCGs. There is you and your members who are prescribing medicines on the strength of recommendations made for which there is valuable consideration from what we understand,” the bench said, adding, “If that is happening, why should we not turn the beam on you?”

The apex court is hearing a plea filed in 2022 by the IMA alleging a smear campaign against the Covid vaccination drive and modern systems of medicine.

During the hearing on Tuesday, the top court also took note of an intervention application seeking imposition of ₹1,000 crore cost on the IMA for filing the petition.

“I have nothing to do with it. I have no idea,” senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Yoga guru Ramdev and his aide Balkrishna, told the bench.

“We are very curious at the timing of the application,” the bench said, adding that it would take up the application when the applicant is present before the court.

The bench posted the matter for further hearing on 30 April.

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‘Stamp-sized’ apology

The Supreme Court questioned Patanjali Ayurved’s Baba Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna for the tiny size of the apology they published in newspapers for their misleading medical advertisements in the violation of their undertaking to the Supreme Court last November.

“When you issue an apology, it does not mean that we have to see it by a microscope’,” Justice Hima Kohli said.

On 22 April, Patanjali Ayurved published advertisements in certain newspapers expressing an apology for the “mistake of publishing advertisements and holding a press conference even after our advocates made a statement in the apex court”.

Patanjali’s lawyer Rohatgi informed the bench about the advertisements. Both Ramdev and Balkrishna were personally present in the court.

In the crosshairs of the Supreme Court over misleading advertisements, Yoga Guru Ramdev and his aide Balkrishna on Tuesday faced questions about how prominently they have published their unqualified apology in newspapers.

“Is it the same size of advertisements that you normally issue in newspapers?” a bench of Justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah asked while hearing the case.

Rohatgi told the bench they had issued on Monday an unqualified apology for the “lapses” on their part.

“Where was it published?” the bench asked. Rohatgi said the apology has been published in 67 newspapers across the country.

“Prominently?” the bench probed the advocate further and directed that the apology published be filed on record. The court said that it wanted to see the actual apology published in newspapers.

“The said advertisements are not on record. It is submitted that the same have been collated and shall be filed in the course of the day with copies to counsel for the parties. Needful shall be done within two days with copies to counsel for the parties,” the bench said.

It said the matter related to the apology published by Ramdev and Balkrishna will be considered on 30 April.

The apex court is hearing a plea filed in 2022 by the IMA alleging a smear campaign against the Covid vaccination drive and modern systems of medicine.

Ramdev and Balkrishna had earlier tendered an “unconditional and unqualified apology” before the top court over advertisements issued by the firm making tall claims about the medicinal efficacy of its products.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)