Tobacco plain packaging is successful and growing despite opposition

Examples of tobacco plain packaging implemented in Australia - image courtesy of the Cancer Council Victoria

The Australian government-mandated plain packaging of tobacco packets has been shown to reduce the number of people smoking, according to the British Medical Journal.

In a move designed to reduce the appeal of tobacco products to young people, in 2011 the Australian government legislated that all cigarette, cigar, and loose leaf tobacco packets have to be the same colour, same plain font, have health warnings cover the vast majority of the packet, and to have no company logos.

The Australian tobacco plain packaging legislation came into effect on December 1, 2012 and a recent edition of the British Medical Journal included a special supplement containing fourteen peer-reviewed papers examining the effectiveness of the tobacco plain packaging laws.

The studies found that the tobacco plain packaging laws have resulted in smoking being less appealing to young people and have resulted in an increase in smokers attempting to quit.

Contrary to the tobacco industry’s predictions about the effects of plain packaging, the study also found that there has been no increase in the illegal tobacco trade.

“These papers provide the first comprehensive set of results of real world plain packaging and they are pointing very strongly to success in achieving the legislation’s aims,” said Professor Melanie Wakefield of Cancer Council Victoria, whose team led the evaluation.

When the Australian government first passed the tobacco plain packaging law, the tobacco industry argued that the plain packaging would increase the number of counterfeit tobacco products in the market. It then filed a lawsuit which claimed that the plain packaging law violated the companies’ intellectual property rights.

In 2012 the Australian High Court found in the Australian government’s favour, dismissing the tobacco industry’s case.

Philip Morris International, which was one of the tobacco companies in that lawsuit, has now taken Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which is an international tribunal that settles trade disputes between nations.

The PCA’s proceedings are governed by the rules of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Rules of Arbitration 2010 (UNCITRAL Rules).

Philip Morris International, which is incorporated in Hong Kong, bases its PCA case on its claim that Australia’s plain packaging laws violate the 1993 Australia-Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty.

Philip Morris claims in its submission that the plain packaging laws expropriate the company’s intellectual property rights, and therefore the company is entitled to compensation. The arbitration is ongoing but an outcome is expected this year.

The governments of Cuba, Indonesia, the Ukraine, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic have also launched action to attempt to have the World Trade Organization overrule Australia’s tobacco plain packaging law.

In 2014, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization appointed a panel to examine the plaintiff’s complaints.

Tobacco plain packaging in Europe

Despite such opposition, Ireland and the UK have both recently followed Australia’s lead and passed tobacco plain packaging laws.

The Irish law requires all tobacco products to be the same colour, have graphic health warnings, and be without branded logos.

“We are creating legislation which will be historic and will be of real importance to the area of public health,” Irish Minister for Children James Reilly told the Irish parliament.

“We are on the verge of being the first country in the EU to pass a law on plain packaging,” he said before the bill passed.

Earlier this month, UK government banned cigarette packets from having logos or branding with its plain packaging law which is scheduled to take effect in May.

The Norwegian Government has now followed suit and announced a consultation to legislate plain tobacco packaging in Norway.