A cancer-stricken father of three, who lit a Wills Navy Cut for his first puff when he was 16 and got hooked, has taken manufacturers ITC to a consumer court for not warning him about the “dangers” of smoking.
In the last stages of throat cancer — and robbed of his voice following a surgery to remove his larynx — customs official Deepak Kumar has sought Rs 1 crore in damages.
Kumar, additional customs commissioner of Mumbai, today filed his complaint before the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission of Maharashtra.
“Every cigarette packet now carries a statutory warning…. But there was no such thing before that and for 30 years I smoked without realising the dangers,” the 59-year-old said.
“There was no warning on the packet which indicated that tobacco was a carcinogen. While ITC made money, I was unknowingly marching towards my death. I tried giving up smoking numerous times. But because of the addictive nature of nicotine, I have never been successful. I want justice now.”
An ITC spokesperson in Calcutta, where the company is headquartered, refused comment.
In Delhi, a lawyer who has helped monitor government action on smoke-free laws, said the Mumbai case had the “potential to become a turning point” in tobacco litigation in India. “As far as we know, no tobacco company has paid compensation to anyone in India for harm resulting from the use of tobacco,” Amit Yadav, a legal officer with Hriday, an NGO campaigning against the use of tobacco, said.
In America and Europe, however, tobacco companies have had to pay up vast amounts in compensation for causing harm or death as a result of continued tobacco use. Five years ago, a jury in Brooklyn, New York, awarded $20 million to the widow of a man who died of lung cancer after smoking for 44 years.
Kumar’s petition will be heard on Monday. If admitted, a notice will be slapped on ITC.
Legal circles said a smoker was clearly a consumer and could move a consumer forum for deficiency in service. The company could, of course, appeal to the National Commission, from where the case could move to the Supreme Court.
The appeal will, however, be limited to financial claim as no criminal liability attaches to a case before a consumer court.
Kumar said the statutory warning now printed on cigarette packets was not enough. “It fails to inform consumers about specific health hazards such as lung and oral cancer, apart from so many other fatal diseases. For every other addictive material, the government has stringent controls and laws. What about cigarettes? The current warning is not commensurate with the dangers and risks to smokers. It hides more than it reveals.”
Last October, Kumar underwent a critical surgery at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital to remove his larynx.
“He speaks with the help of a special prosthesis we attached to his throat. It does a good job, though the voice seems a little mechanical. He also cannot breathe through his nose — an aperture has been made in his throat to assist respiration,” said Dr Pradip Chaturvedi, who treated Kumar.
The prosthetic device needs to be changed every three months to avoid infection. It costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 and Kumar says it is a drain on his salary. Kumar, who has three children, still goes to work at his Mumbai office. “I don’t want to give up my fight against either tobacco or cancer,” he said.
“My aim in filing the lawsuit is to make tobacco companies accountable, pressurise government bodies to curb tobacco products in India and make the public aware of the ill effects of tobacco.”
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