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A PIL in the Bombay High Court has questioned the Union govenment's policy of allowing public sector insurance companies to invest in the tobacco industry, which, it said, contradicts the "anti-tobacco" stance taken by the Centre.
The PIL was recently filed by Sumitra Pednekar, widow of Maharashtra's former home and labour minister Satish Pednekar who died of oral cancer in 2011, and six others including officials of Tata Trust and doctors of Tata Memorial Hospital.
The petition, which is expected to come up for hearing in due course, seeks directions from the court to respondent insurance companies to divest their shareholding from tobacco companies and not to make such investments in future.
It wants that the government and the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) be directed to frame guidelines or a code of conduct to ensure such disinvestment takes place and also to ensure that no such investments are made in future.
The petition said that India is a signatory to WHO's most comprehensive anti-tobacco convention -- the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 2003 (FCTC).
Article 5.3 of the convention says that the parties must create, implement and protect policies for tobacco control.
Furthermore, Article 7.2 of the convention restrains parties from investing in tobacco industry in order not to promote production of tobacco, the petition said.
"While on the one hand, the government is committed to tackling the problem of tobacco and the ill-effects caused by it, the insurance companies, in complete disregard to the government's policy, continue to invest in ITC, dehors the spirit and intent of the FCTC, more particularly the Article 7.2," the PIL argued.
The PIL said before signing and ratifying the FCTC, India had begun strengthening its anti-tobacco laws by enacting 'The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003' on April 30, 2003.
It also said that the investments made by insurance companies are in contradiction to the anti-tobacco stance taken by the Union government on a national and international level.
Quoting official statistics, the PIL said that about ten lakh people die from tobacco-related diseases every year in India. There are 27.5 crore tobacco users in the country, -- every third adult person uses some form of tobacco.
Tobacco kills a consumer prematurely through cancer, heart attack, lung disease, stroke among others and accounts for nearly 50 per cent cancers in the country. Besides, 90 per cent of mouth cancer patients die within 12 months of diagnosis, said the PIL.
It said that insurance companies, along with the SUUTI (the Specified Undertaking of Unit Trust of India), hold a 32 per cent stake in ITC Ltd, which is primarily a tobacco company.
The 383 crore shares that are held by respondent insurance companies and the SUUTI amount to a huge stake in ITC. The total value of the stake works out to Rs 1,07,000 crore, as per the petition.
The respondents to the petition are Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), The New India Assurance Company Ltd, General Insurance Corporation of India, The Oriental Insurance Company Ltd, National Insurance Company Ltd, the IRDA and the Union government.