The story so far: On February 27, the Supreme Court restrained Patanjali Ayurved from discrediting allopathy in its campaigns, and from advertising products that claim to cure chronic conditions. Patanjali’s ads present its products to people as a ‘permanent relief’, which is “misleading” and “a violation of the law”, the Bench remarked, citing provisions of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 (DMR&OA) and its Rules.

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The Bench also issued a contempt notice against the company and its Managing Director Acharya Balkrishna for failing to adhere to directions passed in November last year. The “entire country has been taken for a ride”, the Bench said, while reprimanding the Union Government for its failure to take “urgent action”.

What is the case?

The case goes back to August 2022. IMA filed a petition in response to a Patanjali advert titled: “MISCONCEPTIONS SPREAD BY ALLOPATHY: SAVE YOURSELF AND THE COUNTRY FROM THE MISCONCEPTIONS SPREAD BY PHARMA AND MEDICAL INDUSTRY.” The petition presented two grievances: that the company is denigrating allopathy through a “continuous, systematic, and unabated spread of misinformation,” while also making exaggerated claims about its drugs which are purportedly based on “scientific, evidence-based medicines.”

“They are attacking evidence-based medicines to promote their drugs —advertisements of which are banned in our country,” explains Dr. K. V. Babu, an RTI activist and physician from Kannur. Such statements violate both the Drugs and Other Magical Remedies Act, 1954 (DOMA) and the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (CPA), the IMA has said.

In 2017, Patanjali’s Divya Amla Juice (recommended to people with diabetes) and Shivlingi Beej were found to be of ‘substandard quality’ by Haridwar’s Ayurveda and Unani Office, according to a Right to Information reply. In December 2022, Nepal’s drug regulator blacklisted Patanjali’s Divya Pharmacy for failing to comply with WHO’s drug manufacturing standards. Other reports have also raised concerns about Patanjali’s dubious quality checks and clinical trial evidence.

A Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Hima Kohli and Ahsanuddin Amanullah on November 21 last year warned Patanjali to not advertise permanent cures and threatened to impose a penalty of ₹1 crore for every product about which such claims are made. The Court refused to enter the “Allopathy v. Ayurveda” debate at the time. Patanjali assured the Court there “shall not be any violation of any law(s), especially relating to advertising or branding of products” and “that no casual statements claiming medicinal efficacy or against any system of medicine will be released to the media in any form.”

“What do you mean by ‘permanent relief’? There are only two types of permanent relief. One, the person dies. Two, the person is cured. There is no third ‘permanent relief.’”Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah on February 27, 2024

The company failed on both counts. One day after the hearing, Mr. Ramdev extolled Patanjali products at a press conference. Ads subsequently appeared in December and January in mainstream media. Per Dr. Babu, these violate the company’s “commitment to the Supreme Court.” A Patanjali ad dated January 7 claims its products are “more effective than chemical-based synthetic medicines of allopathy.” Notably, Mr. Ramdev has previously called allopathy a “stupid and bankrupt science.”

““How can Patanjali claim to completely cure blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, asthma and obesity?” said an irate Bench of the Supreme Court. ”

In addition to issuing contempt notices to Patanjali’s owners, the Bench chided the Union Government. “Common, gullible people are involved…This petition was filed in 2022. For two years you did nothing.”

What does the law say?

The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 regulates false medical advertisements in India. People or entities can be sentenced to up to six months imprisonment, and/or a fine for the first offence. The period of imprisonment can extend to one year for a second offence. The CPA also penalises misleading advertisements and carries a more stringent sentence that can extend to two years.

Section 3 prohibits ads for the “diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any disease, disorder or condition specified in the Schedule.” The Schedule includes diabetes, heart diseases, glaucoma and 51 other diseases. A 2020 amendment has proposed to include liver disorders in the Schedule. “Not all advertisements are prohibited — only those on diseases specified in the Schedule,” Dr. Babu points out.

In addition, Section 4 of the Magic Remedies Act prohibits any “misleading advertisement,” which “directly or indirectly” gives a false impression regarding the true character of the drug, makes a false claim for the drug, or “is otherwise false or misleading in any material particular.”

Dr. Babu has seen at least 25 advertisements violating these norms over the last two years — “there can be any number of violations,” spread across print, television, WhatsApp, social media. In one of his regular programmes “Yog ke Rang, Swami Ramdev ke Sang,” Baba Ramdev claimed, “Modern medical science says cataract and glaucoma can’t be fixed. I had done it 30 years ago. Glaucoma gets better 100%.” Researchers agree there is no effective, proven and permanent treatment for glaucoma, but “Patanjali claims you can just put some drops and cure these conditions,” Dr. Babu adds.

Patanjali’s misleading ads have come under legal scrutiny before. The IMA has filed cases against Patanjali and Mr. Ramdev in different States for making spurious statements about COVID-19 cures, the efficacy of oxygen cylinders and for stoking vaccine hesitancy. The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) and the Uttarakhand Ayurvedic and Unani Services issued a notice in 2022 to withdraw misleading ads. The Uttarakhand body in 2023 ordered Patanjali to remove all ads and also banned the production of five drugs. The ban was reversed four days later. Patanjali has dismissed these cases as part of a conspiracy designed by an “anti-Ayurveda drug mafia.”

Patanjali has never denied that its ads violate provisions of the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act.

Is Patanjali skirting the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act?

Medical practitioners and experts suggest that The DMR&OA is an imperfect law. These limitations allow companies like Patanjali to go unscathed despite repeated offences. “It itself is a weak law that is getting violated repeatedly — that is a problem now,” Dr. Babu notes.

For one, Patanjali’s adverts and Mr. Ramdev’s programmes always recommend a mix of treatments — say yoga, with lifestyle changes and Patanjali meds. “They’re playing safe. They can easily say that if something doesn’t work, you might not have done, say, yoga correctly…These are borderline violations. There’s no 100% contravention,” Ravindra Joshi, former assistant commissioner at the Food and Drugs Administration Maharashtra told The Morning Context last year.

Mr. Ramdev’s role in the company may also exempt him from scrutiny — he is the brand ambassador but does not hold a legal stake in Patanjali Ayurved. “He is a sanyasi (monk). He does not hold any position in the company and is only a yoga guru,” Mr. Sanghi told the Supreme Court when asked about Ramdev’s position in the company. The Bench said, “If we take a view, the persons who are in this advertisement [Mr. Balakrishna and Mr. Ramdev] should be made parties [to the case].”

Moreover, convictions under the Magic Remedies Act are few and far between. During the period between August 2018 to June 2021, 14,876 instances of misleading advertisements of Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Homoeopathy (ASU&H) drugs have been reported by the Pharmacovigilance centres, the Ministry of AYUSH said in a response to Lok Sabha. It is unclear how many were investigated and led to convictions. Public health activist Dinesh Thakur and lawyer Prashant Reddy wrote in an article that in most cases, drug inspectors prosecute only the manufacturer, and if penalties are imposed, they are usually in the range of Rs. 20,000 “despite the law not specifically mentioning an outer limit”.

The ‘weak’ legal framework is made weaker through insipid implementation, Dr. Babu says. Section 8 of DOMA places the responsibility of implementing the Act on State Regulatory Authorities. In 2017, the Ministry of AYUSH also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Advertising Standards Council of India, to identify illegal and misleading advertisements and agreed to bring cases to the notice of the State Regulatory Authorities.

In this case, “the Uttarakhand licensing authority is not listening to the repeated communications from the Ministry of AYUSH…they are not implementing it,” says Dr. Babu. Between 2022 and 2024, the Ministry sent five communications to Uttarakhand Ayurveda and Unani Services, bringing these violations to their attention. The latest was sent on February 2, 2024, according to an affidavit presented in the Supreme Court.

A “turning point” in the current legal tussle came in February 2022, when a prominent ad on newspapers’ front pages boasted of Lipidom’s ability to reduce cholesterol and control blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. “This was a very provocative advertisement,” Dr. Babu notes, for it exaggerated the product’s efficacy while also discrediting science-backed research.

Months later, they claimed to have developed an effective treatment for insulin-dependent diabetics — people with type 1 diabetes — saying they could now stop taking insulin. “Insulin discovery earned a Nobel prize in 1923. If somebody has discovered a treatment that can surpass this, they should be given Nobel prize achievement,” Dr. Babu remarked. Stopping insulin can also be life-threatening — the American Diabetes Association recognises access to insulin as a ‘literal matter of life and death.’

In a letter dated 2016, the Ayurvedic Drug Manufacturers’ Association (of which Patanjali is a member) admitted that the implementation of the Magic Remedies Act is ‘weak.’ This letter was accessed by Dr. Babu and has been reviewed by The Hindu. 

What next?

Such misleading ads are not only unlawful, but also pose a risk to public health by spreading misinformation about evidence-based treatments that prey on the vulnerable, public health experts argue. Take the insulin ad, which was widely criticised for peddling a ‘miracle cure’. Following criticism, Patanjali published another ad in December 2022: this one showed folded hands, placed next to a text that read: ‘Don’t stop insulin.’

Patanjali’s misleading ads are a “major public health issue and have to be addressed at any cost,” Dr. Babu says.

Patanjali’s success and ability to remain immune to legal scrutiny is a symptom of the problem: of people not receiving any care which is affordable or accessible, says Shivangi Shankar, a public health expert and modern medicine doctor. “…the underprivileged are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either they suffer due to delayed care from modern medicine or from a misguided and predatory advertisement that …further exploits them,” she says.

For now, the Court’s ruling has placed a temporary ban on all forms of advertisements for Patanjali’s medicinal products, and refused to even allow ads “without adjectives.” It reiterated the earlier warning about smearing modern medicine treatments, noting that “allopathy cannot be degraded/defamed in the eyes of the public like this.”

Patanjali’s lawyer senior advocate Vipin Sanghi called the Supreme Court’s temporary ban ‘unfair’ and said the company is “entitled to advertise” its products.

The case will be heard next on March 19. Dr. Babu believes the current Supreme Court direction will compel the Uttarakhand licensing body to act. “Act or perish, it’s their choice,” he says.  

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