The Economic Times’s India’s leading media held the second edition of its Consumer Freedom Conclave– a power packed thought leadership platform driving discussions & debates on the need for progressive law making and a consumer benefit/choice oriented regulatory framework for India.

Based on the theme ‘Freedom of Consumption – Rewiring Constraints’, the high impact session saw eminent corporate & academic leaders, across industries deep dive into various facets of consumer freedom in light of establishing economic independence, examining policies enacted by progressive countries and its growing relevance in a post-pandemic world.

Manish Tewari, Lawyer and Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) gave the key note address. He opened the session with a pertinent point “Poor policy decisions have delivered a body blow to the entire economic construct of India. COVID-19 has brought a structural shift in consumption patterns. The COVID-19 pandemic gave people an opportunity to reflect upon who we are as individuals and how much do we require to lead a fairly satisfying and fulfilling life.”

Some of the other key speakers included – Supratim Chakraborty (Khaitan & Co), Vedika Mittal (Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy), Professor Peter Hajek (Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine)

Rajesh Ramakrishnan (Perfetti Van Melle), Ashutosh Manohar (Tetra Pak India), David T. Sweanor J.D (University of Ottawa), Kenneth Warner (University of Michigan) and Dr. Sree T.Sucharitha (AHRER).

A key discussion point was that of providing the Indian consumer with the ability to make informed choices – backed by studied facts & data – in safer alternatives, reducing harm (result from use, in many instances). Henceforth, vital to recalibrate and take a long-term view of the socio-economic impact of legislations that choose to ban instead of regulating, products – in the free market.

As India gradually revives, developing a robust buyer’s marketplace, underlining ‘possibilities’ for consumers is crucial. Greater consumption and unlocking of demand can be enabled by progressive regulations with public participation & systematic changes in guidelines to account for consumer freedom – as a bedrock to exercise choice.

The moot question – whether India can overcome its regulatory hurdles and build a framework that evolves in tandem with changing consumer behaviour paradigms?

Speaking on the subject, Supratim Chakraborty, Partner, Khaitan & Co (Corporate/Commercial, Tech/Data Protection), said, “New age of law-making is built on four pillars: Pre-regulation, testing and evaluation, regulatory approach, and revisiting the laws. When drafting modern era laws, such as Active Regulation, Regulatory Sandboxing, Outcome-Based Regulation, Risk-Weighted Regulations, and Collaborative Regulation, must be considered. It’s essential to adapt the archaic laws to contemporary trends and evolving needs of consumers. Lawmakers must truly consider what is beneficial to the consumer, while also addressing business challenges for industries, in line. “

Another important aspect is selecting blanket bans over ‘regulating’ – the former, in many instances is significantly counterproductive, curtailing consumer freedom. To this, Vedika Mittal, Senior Resident Fellow and Leader of Competition Law, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy said, “The biggest anomaly is the one-size-fits-all approach of regulations in India. If we intend on our regulatory framework being more scientific and evidence based, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – emulating global best practices can help leapfrog in the right direction. Mobilising public participation in law making and more stakeholder consultations is also pivotal. In the long run, a fair and competitive market will benefit, and improved laws will boost consumer confidence.”

Professor Peter Hajek, Director of Health and Lifestyle Research Unit, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, made an interesting observation, “It is true that many times consumers can engage in risky behaviours, and one needs to assess risks v/s choices, then. In this, the interest of public health can often conflict with public morals; however, it is imperative to take a pragmatic stance. Across industries, safer alternatives in harm reduction; strive to explore less threatening choices for consumers to consider. Misguided regulations and stringent policies are steering people towards continued harmful consumption rather than switching to safer products”.

Adding on, Rajesh Ramakrishnan, MD, Perfetti Van Melle said, “Bridging the gap between buyers and sellers is all about consumer freedom and giving them the option of making mindful choices.  There are four enablers for this, ensuring quality and standard of a product; listening to consumers actively; ensuring brands evolve commensurate to consumer needs by offering them choices to make the right decision (in a sugar-free or vitamin induced variant). There needs to be a three-way partnership between consumers, brands and the government.”

The post pandemic consumer is very cautious & conscious, aligned to responsible choices. Commenting on this Ashutosh Manohar – MD, Tetra Pak India said, “Post pandemic, given the increased risks of contamination, consumers are gravitating to packaged food owing to consistency and regulations ensuring food safety and information with labelling, calories etc. enabling consumers to make informed decisions. Separately, a product & organisation that is environmentally responsible and sustainable – managing harm & waste management – is the choice of today’s consumer. Recycling has become a central differentiator and must be built across the value chain from design to disposal building into larger sustainability priorities for relevant industries. Integrating & consolidating recycling in the existing system along with the informal sector to make a real difference will be drive this at a larger level, though.”

Highlighting the imperative of empowering consumers to make informed health related decisions & advocating a logical, rational approach, David T. Sweanor J.D, Chair of the Advisory Board, Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics, University of Ottawa Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, asserts, “Prohibition is the worst form of regulation and sometimes the abandonment of regulation. The prohibition of alcohol in US was a colossal failure and provides many learnings to countries and categories. Unfortunately, prohibitive policies are now being applied from alcohol to tobacco sector steered by anti-tobacco organizations and their funding especially in LMICs to influence policies. Governments need to move from coercion to cooperation, work with people instead of opposing them – to be successful, we must empower them with information on reduced risk options and provide them with safer alternatives. For example, we can change the heath of adult smokers by just changing the delivery channels by providing safer solutions Prohibitionists are saving the cigarettes business and denying the consumer the right, as they are unable to quit.”

Adding in “Science indicates the benefits of tobacco harm reduction products, in assisting people who are unable to quit smoking. Despite this, many companies are taking a prohibitionist approach to ban these products based on ideology as opposed to science. We need policies that recognize products, based on evidence, to be less harmful made available, yet limit access to only adult smokers, through strict regulations including age-gating, taxations.” says Kenneth Warner, Professor Emeritus of Health Management & Policy, Dean Emeritus of Public Health, School of Public Health, the University of Michigan.

Dr. Sree T.Sucharitha, M.D currently Professor in Department of Community Medicine and Research Co-ordinator at Tagore Medical College and Hospital Chennai and Founding-Director of AHRER, said, “For a large country like India, health literacy about hard reduction, accessibility & affordability is critical to successfully reduce dependency amongst adult consumers. We could look at mirroring the energy sector, which created clean energy – similarly look at building clean nicotine solutions – especially for Asia which is home to over 60% smokers. Learnings from US, Sweden, Japan which have adopted safer alternatives should be taken into consideration in developing a policy framework aligned to India.”

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