islamabad - The health ministry is facing a court challenge over its failure to increase the size of graphic warnings on cigarette packets.

Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar announced the increase in February this year to raise awareness of cancers and other serious illnesses related to cigarette smoking.

Campaigners are alarmed almost six months later the government has failed to act and the deadline for introducing the new warning expired more than two weeks ago.

Two campaign groups, the Society for Alternative Media & Research (SAMAR) and The Network for Consumer Protection,

have now moved the Islamabad High Court (IHC) over the delay and the case will be heard this week.

The court ordered the ministry of national health services, regulation and coordination, ministry of finance and federal board of revenue to respond within ten days.

The campaigners fear the delay in introducing the new enlarged graphic packets has been caused by intense lobbying by the tobacco industry. The petitioners have urged the court to press for immediate implementation.

The decision was first announced on January 29 this year and it was due to come into effect on March 30, 2015 with the further grace period of 60 days for the tobacco industry to comply. Later, the government gave another grace period to the industry that too expired on July 31 but no change in the size of the graphic warning has been made so far.

According to the statutory regulatory order issued under the Cigarette (printing of warning) Ordinance 1979, the size of pictorial health warning was to be raised to 85 per cent of the cigarette pack. The pictorial health warning shows an oral cancer patient whose lips and mouth have been eaten away by the disease.

Talking to The Nation on Sunday about the prevailing uncertainty over the pictorial health warning, Khurram Hashmi, national coordinator for SAMAR, said it seems the government is under pressure by tobacco industry and that is why it keeps pending the decision.

Referring to media reports, he said the tobacco industry also allegedly used foreign pressure to put the health ministry on the back foot.

Hashmi said enhancing the size of pictorial health warning is a landmark decision. “If the government retreats from its commitment to public health and withdraws pictorial health warnings, it will be a major setback and millions of people of Pakistan will be left at the mercy of cigarette industry,” he further said.

“Through this petition we extend our support to the health ministry so that it might take steps for larger interest of people without compromising on their health,” said Khurram adding that already the health cost associated with tobacco use is much larger than revenue generated by tax on tobacco industry.

Nadeem Iqbal, executive coordinator of The Network, regretted that the health ministry seems to be surrendering before the finance ministry, commerce ministry and federal board of revenue and withdrawing a landmark decision.

According to Nadeem, the health ministry has a leading role in tobacco control while the role of other ministries, departments and divisions is to support it in its tobacco control endeavours.