Top court orders Indian yoga guru and tycoon to issue public apology for false ads


The Indian Medical Association alleges that Baba Ramdev’s billion-dollar company had engaged in a smear campaign against modern medicine and claimed to cure ailments. - Reuters

KOCHI: Yoga guru and ayurvedic products tycoon Baba Ramdev is in the cross hairs of India’s top court over false medical advertisements claiming his products can cure dozens of diseases.

The Supreme Court initiated contempt of court proceedings against Ramdev on Feb 27 after he failed to keep to a promise made in 2023 that the ads would stop.

The Supreme Court has been hearing a petition filed by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), which represents doctors in the country, since November 2023.

The IMA alleges that Ramdev’s billion-dollar company Patanjali Ayurved engaged in a smear campaign against modern medicine and claimed to cure ailments.

Such advertising is banned under Indian law.

The IMA petition refers to at least 30 misleading advertisements published by Patanjali.

One such advertisement in the spotlight is for Patanjali’s product Coronil, promoted as a cure for Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic. In the advertisement, Ramdev is featured without a mask.

A Supreme Court bench of two judges reprimanded the company’s founders, Balkrishna Acharya and Ramdev, for making “dangerous” false claims, and promoting products that were under scrutiny even as the case was ongoing.

The bearded, bare-chested and saffron dhoti-clad Ramdev is a popular yoga teacher who runs his own TV channel.

In 2006, he founded Patanjali, a multinational company that makes food, cosmetics, home care and herbal products in Haridwar, in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

The company makes everything from honey and medicines to soap and flour. It now has 47,000 stores all over India, and also sells in the US, UK, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Canada.

“Ramdev has gone beyond being a yoga guru, and is now often referred as to what he actually is – an industrialist,” wrote Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, journalist and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biographer, in a 2016 article published in news website DailyO.

Mukhopadhyay described how he “was sucked into” Patanjali’s brand appeal of “faith and purity” for years even though he saw no change to his chronic back pain and diabetes.

Patanjali’s advertising suggests that the company espouses traditional Indian values and promotes ancient recipes over modern medicines.

Ramdev appears in these ads, saying that buying from Patanjali is a vote for the “financial independence” of India from China and the West.

He is also a strong backer of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many of Patanjali’s retail and pharmaceutical products claim to be “desi” (of Indian origin), and are described as having health benefits, with wide-ranging curative powers.

The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act of 1954 explicitly bars promoting drugs intended for the treatment and cure of 54 specific medical conditions, which include cancer, diabetes, menstrual or nervous disorders, obesity, heart disease and high or low blood pressure.

“These prohibitions have been more flouted than respected” by all medical disciplines, and state governments often ignore hundreds of complaints sent by the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturotherapy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (Ayush), wrote India’s former health secretary Shailaja Chandra in The Indian Express newspaper.

Full-page advertisements claiming miracle cures can be commonly found in Indian newspapers, and on radio and TV programmes.

Chandra wrote that the Patanjali case “highlights the vulnerability of the consumer”, who counts on regulatory bodies to ensure that “nothing unsafe, hazardous or ineffective is sold as medicine”.

There is greater danger in the case of promoting traditional healing practices like Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani, she added, because “the consumer assumes all products are natural and consequently safe”.

In November 2023, the Supreme Court received an undertaking from Ramdev and Balkrishna that they would not make any statements in the print or electronic media about the efficacy of their medicinal products or indulge in any disparaging statements about other disciplines of medicine.

However, the very next day, Ramdev issued a press statement claiming that Patanjali had conducted pre-clinical and clinical trials on more than 10 million people to test the efficacy of its products.

From then on, the court has been tearing into the self-styled guru for not only laxity in adhering to public health standards, but also treating the court “with disdain”.

Ramdev and Balkrishna have previously issued two apologies to the court, but it had rejected both.

India’s top court said that Patanjali’s objectionable and misleading advertisements promising cures for ailments ranging from blood pressure issues and diabetes to obesity and liver dysfunction, and even Covid-19 during the pandemic, were “deliberate and wilful violations” of the law.

During a hearing on April 16, media reports quoted Ramdev as having said: “We didn’t mean to violate the Supreme Court orders. We did over 5,000 researches (sic) and experiments.”

Insisting that Patanjali was “not off the hook”, the court gave the company a week to issue a public statement and redeem itself. The next hearing is on April 23.

Patanjali officials did not respond to queries from The Straits Times.

The judges also asked why the Uttarakhand government, where Patanjali is based, had been in “a deep slumber” and not acted against the company.

Ramdev is among the few private individuals to have Z category security that the federal government gives people under high risk, “taking into account his vulnerability to attacks from opponents”, said the home ministry in 2014.

The petitioners claimed that his perceived closeness to power has perhaps shielded him from punitive action despite years of complaints. India’s health and transport ministers had even attended the launch of Patanjali’s “Covid cure” Coronil, which was seen as a seal of approval.

But the complaints against Patanjali are now catching up with it.

Some of the complaints in the Supreme Court petition come from Dr K.V. Babu, an ophthalmologist in Kannur, Kerala. Since 2021, he has flagged dozens of “false cure” advertisements by different companies with state drug controllers.

His campaign began after one of his patients who had glaucoma – a condition of increased pressure within the eyeball causing gradual loss of sight – quit treatment and switched to a brand of eye drops (not Patanjali’s) widely advertised in Kerala.

“When she returned to me after a year and a half in 2019, she was almost blind,” Dr Babu said.

In 2021, Dr Babu saw an advertisement on X (formerly Twitter) for Drishti drops by Patanjali that claimed it would cure cataract, glaucoma and night blindness.

Within days, he said that he saw another advertisement for Patanjali’s Lipido that claimed to reduce cholesterol and regulate blood pressure in one week.

“Such ads are not just false, but dangerous, and can have dire consequences,” Dr Babu said.

He began to file complaints with the Drug Controller of India.

The issue came to a head nationwide in 2022, when Patanjali’s advertisement for “an integrated treatment” called “basti therapy” said it could “completely cure” Type 1 diabetes, mostly seen in children.

The ad said: “Save yourself and the country from the misconceptions spread by pharma and the medical industry. Let’s make India disease-free.”

It sparked a Twitter storm as endocrinologists and other doctors advised people against stopping any prescribed intake of insulin, as it could prove fatal.

“People are being misled every day by various companies. A proper penalty to a repeat violator like Patanjali will act as a deterrent to all companies, whether ayurvedic or allopathic,” said Dr Babu. - The Straits Times/ANN

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