A strong rebuke

The Supreme Court’s strong rebuke against Patanjali, its managing director and Baba Ramdev for disregarding a court order warning the company to not advertise permanent cures or issue “casual statements claiming medicinal efficacy or against any system of medicine”, is a blunt response to the gross deviation from adherence to ‘scientific temper’—as enshrined in Article 51 of the Indian Constitution. Obviously, the case entails more than just a defiance of a non-justiciable fundamental duty; it presents the possibility of grave risks to public health, contempt of court, manipulation of consumers, and ignorance of the government. Unsatisfied by the responses of the contemnors thus far, the court has given them a last opportunity to file fresh responses. At the same time, it has reprimanded the Union Government for not taking urgent action when the entire nation was “taken for a ride” through misleading ads. The court aptly highlighted the involvement of “common, gullible people (on the receiving end)”.

At the heart of this controversy is an advertisement released by Patanjali on December 4, 2023, which seemingly defied the Supreme Court's explicit directions given on November 21, 2023. The court had clearly mandated that Patanjali Ayurved refrain from issuing casual statements regarding the medicinal efficacy of its products or disparaging any system of medicine, notably Allopathy. Unsurprisingly, the defiance through advertising led to a stern reprimand from a bench comprising Justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah, which highlights not just a breach of trust but also a blatant disregard for the court's authority.

In response, an affidavit filed by Balkrishna, shifting blame to the company’s media department, was met with scepticism. The court observed: accountability cannot be sidestepped by attributing lapses to internal departments. The court clarified that the company’s “media department is not a standalone island” in the office, and thus, it must be aware of the court’s important directions given in November last year. Furthermore, the Supreme Court expressed its unwillingness to “look at this apology which is perfunctory in every respect” and pays merely a “lip service”.

The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, forms the legislative backbone against misleading advertisements. Yet, the case in question exposes the gaps between legislative intent and enforcement efficacy, raising questions about the adequacy of existing legal mechanisms to combat the spread of misinformation. Patanjali's argument, as presented in court, that the Act is "archaic" and not in line with current scientific research, was swiftly rebuked. Justice Kohli's remark that an Act, irrespective of its age, remains enforceable as long as it is on the statute book, serves as a stern reminder that legal compliances are not optional, and certainly not subject to selective adherence based on contemporary interpretations of science or medicine. The court's frustration is palpable and justified. Despite previous warnings and legal undertakings, Patanjali's actions—viewed as a direct challenge to the judiciary's authority—underline a deeper malaise: the commercial exploitation of public trust in traditional medicine. This exploitation is further exacerbated by the misuse of advertising platforms to disseminate claims that have significant implications for public health choices and perceptions.

As the Supreme Court gives Baba Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna a final opportunity to present a convincing defence, this episode should serve as a clarion call for all stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem. It is a reminder that the integrity of healthcare communication is non-negotiable. Moreover, this situation calls for an introspective examination of the regulatory landscape governing healthcare advertisements in India. It is an opportune moment for legislative and regulatory bodies to reassess the effectiveness of existing laws and consider the introduction of more stringent measures to prevent the dissemination of unsubstantiated health claims.

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