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Dr Babu KV vs Patanjali: A Doctor’s Long Fight Against False Medical Advertising

"I had expected this... There is no way out for the SC but to take cognisance of this violation," he says.

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On Tuesday, 27 February, the Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to Patanjali Ayurved for publishing misleading advertisements regarding medicinal cures, despite the company giving an undertaking to the court earlier in November 2023 that they would stop.

While delivering the interim verdict, the apex court asked all false and misleading advertisements of Patanjali Ayurved to stop immediately, as well as questioned the Centre for not taking timely action.

Notices served to the company in the past, including one by Uttarakhand's Ayurveda and Unani Licensing Authority in November 2022, can be traced back to the relentless efforts of one doctor from Kerala.

Dr Babu KV, an ophthalmologist and RTI activist from Kannur, Kerala, filed his first complaint against Divya Pharmacy under Patanjali Ayurved Limited for violating the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 back on 24 February 2022.

Since then, he has filed more than five complaints and over 150 Right to Information (RTI) requests in order to make sure the company is held accountable for its legal violations.

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"To be frank, I had expected this verdict. There is no way out for the Supreme Court but to take cognisance of this violation," he says.

Ahead of the matter, which will now be heard on 19 March, FIT speaks to Dr Babu KV about his efforts in the past two years that eventually led to the apex court's order. The matter will be heard next on March 19.

‘As a Doctor, I Felt Responsible’: How It Started

Reminiscing, Dr Babu says that the first time he noticed a questionable advertisement from the popular brand was back in 2019. "It was an ad for an eye drop that claimed to cure a number of eye diseases like cataract, glaucoma and night blindness which is not possible with the same drug."

As an ophthalmologist, Dr Babu could immediately tell this was baseless. However, he says, it was the aggressively 'anti-modern medicine' narrative in the brand's ad campaigns in the years to come that pushed him to take action.

"These ads were accusing scientific medicine saying that if you take 'allopathy' medicines, such and such harmful effects and side effects are there. I was seeing a provocative advert like this for the first time that was blatantly attacking modern medicine," he adds.

"When such an advertisement is made, the implied meaning is that stop taking the 'allopathy' medicine and switch over to these products because the former is harmful, and the latter is safe and effective."
Dr Babu KV

"As a medical practitioner, I felt like it was my responsibility to step in," he adds.

"I had expected this... There is no way out for the SC but to take cognisance of this violation," he says.

A newspaper advertisement for Patanjali Wellness products.

(Photo source: X/@Indulekha_A)

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Violations After Violations & RTIs After RTIs

Dr Babu made his first complaint on 24 February 2022 to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGA) against a product by Patanjali called Lipidom, which claimed to help control cholesterol. "I was not sure where to complain at the time, just that I needed to bring this to the attention of the authorities."

He says the complaint was forwarded to the Ministry of Ayush who then forwarded it to the Uttarakhand state licensing authorities.

"The Ayush Ministry responded promptly to the RTI I filed."

In his complaint, Dr Babu says, he underscored how the advertisements for certain products by Divya Pharmacy under Patanjali Ayurved Limited, are in violation of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954.

"The Ayush Ministry in their RTI response agreed that prima facie evidence suggests that it violates the drugs and magic remedies act, but they didn't pursue it themselves. On 14 April 2022, they responded saying that they have directed the Uttarakhand licensing authority to take appropriate action on it."
Dr Babu KV

On 7 May 2022, Patanjali Ayurved made a commitment to the Uttarakhand licensing authority that they are withdrawing the advertisement. 

"At that point, I thought it was a very simple process and it's over now. But the company put out advertisements of various products again on 10 July with similar claims and continued to do so till January 2023. Then they stopped for a while, and and again started in June 2023 till November 2023 when the last Supreme Court order came."

During Tuesday's hearing, Senior Advocate PS Patwalia, appearing for the Indian Medical Association, stated that just a day after the court's order in November 2023, Baba Ramdev and Acharya Balakrishna (Chairperson of Patanjali Ayurved) held a press conference where they made misleading claims again and continued to publish advertisements claiming that Patanjali Ayurved products can provide permanent cures for ailments like diabetes, blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, and glaucoma.

"Whenever they are reprimanded, they stop it for a while and then restart it. This has been their policy," says Dr Babu, adding, "I tried writing to the Uttarakhand government again in December but got no response, not even through an RTI."

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‘Doctors Were Begging Kids To Not Stop Insulin’: Why He Persisted

Did he ever feel like this was a futile exercise and that he should give up?

"In July 2022, there was an advertisement carried by all the leading newspapers which claimed that Patanjali's products cured insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM)."

What happens when a person is given a choice between having to take an injection everyday of their life and a churan that can cure their condition altogether? "Influencing and misleading the masses in this way can be disastrous," he says.

The very next day, he says, he saw the real-world repercussions of this messaging in the form of tweets by eminent endocrinologists and diabetologists from across the country pleading to people, especially children, to not stop insulin.  

"That was the turning point for me. I knew then that this was a major public health issue, and that government intervention is needed."
Dr Babu KV

‘I Trust the Indian Legal System'

"As a doctor, I believe that all the healthcare products that are used should undergo meticulous scientific studies before they are used. Whether it is Ayurveda, modern medicine, or even wellness products that claim to 'promote health'."

"Unfortunately, the law of our land doesn't require that as yet. In this case, however, there is a clear violation of the law as per any judgment and they still manage to get away with it somehow."
Dr Babu KV
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Earlier this year, seeing as the company resumed advertising their products with misleading claims despite the Supreme Court's orders in 2023, Dr Babu wrote to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on 15 January 2024.

"I had expected this... There is no way out for the SC but to take cognisance of this violation," he says.

Dr Babu KV's letter to the PMO.

(Photo: Dr Babu KV/Sourced by FIT)

"This letter was forwarded to the Union Ministry of Ayush who then wrote to the Uttarakhand Ayush Ministry on 2 February, but no action has been taken so far by them. This, despite communication from the PMO," he says.

"I had expected this... There is no way out for the SC but to take cognisance of this violation," he says.

Letter from the Union Ministry of Ayurvedic and Unani Services, Uttarakhand.

(Photo: Dr Babu KV/Sourced by FIT)

"This practice of making a commitment, complying for a few months, and then violating it again and again should not be allowed to continue. The judiciary and the regulatory bodies have to act very strongly."

"The latest observations by the Supreme Court are a step in the right direction, and it is encouraging for sure. I do trust the Indian legal system. This verdict indicates that they seem to be taking it seriously." says the doctor, before he hangs up so he can start attending to his patients at his clinic for the day.

(FIT has reached out to Patanjali Ayurved for a response over email. The article will be updated if and when they respond.)

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