‘Be careful’: Press Council of India pulls up Times of India for advertising tobacco and paan masala

The warning is the culmination of a three-year feud between the newspaper and Delhi’s Directorate General of Health Services.

WrittenBy:Anna Priyadarshini
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Last month, the Press Council of India told the Times of India that the newspaper needs to be “careful” and “refrain” from publishing advertisements for tobacco and paan masala products.

The statement, issued on September 21, was a result of a report from an inquiry committee set up by the council to look into these advertisements. It followed a three-year feud between the newspaper and Delhi’s Directorate General of Health Services.

A section of the Press Council's statement.

The case dates back to 2017 when SK Arora, the additional director of the heath services, sent Times of India a series of showcause notices for carrying advertisements for tobacco and paan masala products. For example, one of the notices was about the newspaper carrying an advertisement for Rajnigandha tobacco and paan masala on the front page of its New Delhi edition.

Another notice had pulled up the Times of India for allegedly promoting Rajnigandha at the Times Lit Fest in New Delhi — since Rajnigandha was one of the event’s sponsors. The notice described it as a “clear violation of Section 5 of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003”. The Act prohibits any direct or indirect advertisements of cigarettes and other products that contain tobacco.

The Times of India had responded to the individual notices — as detailed by Newslaundry in this story — but Arora deemed the responses “unsatisfactory”. He also said the newspaper had “continued violating the laws”, and that such advertisements, especially in platforms like the Times Lit Fest, might “mislead” the youth.

So, he moved the Press Council of India on November 26, 2018.

Two days later, the Times of India contended that the Rajnigandha advertisement had “no reference of tobacco” and was registered as paan masala.

However, as Arora told Newslaundry last year: “If this brand was being promoted as tobacco, then it would have been a direct advertisement of tobacco and a violation of Section 5 of the COTPA. If it was paan masala, then it would have been a violation of Section 5 of COTPA as it becomes a surrogate advertisement of tobacco and also a violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act...under which paan masala can’t be advertised without warning.”

Arora also told Newslaundry earlier this week: “These are hazardous products. Even if we consider it as paan masala, there is sufficient evidence that paan masala also causes cancer. They were blindly promoting a brand without any health warning. These are serious issues and newspapers...like Times of India should have societal responsibility.”

On January 20, 2020, the Press Council’s inquiry committee into the matter held a meeting where it asked the Times of India to clarify whether or not Rajnigandha is registered as a tobacco brand. The committee observed that the newspaper “was unable to give a specific reply”.

Subsequently, in its report in September, the committee noted that the certificate of authority under the commerce ministry “shows that Rajnigandha is a tobacco product”.

“Once it is held so, the respondent newspaper has published an advertisement for a tobacco product and for this, the newspaper is solely responsible,” the committee said. “Accordingly, the inquiry committee recommends that the respondent newspaper be careful in the future and refrain from publishing such advertisements in the future.”

Arora told Newslaundry that he had fought the case “purely in public health interest”.

“Ideally, the newspaper shouldn’t indulge in advertising such products now and if they do, then this will be a contempt of the Press Council of India proceedings,” he said.

Newslaundry emailed the Times of India deputy general manager Sudeep Garg and assistant editor Sushmi Dey for comments about the matter, but did not receive a response from either.

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