Big Tobacco took a major hit when the High Court of Australia decided that the ground-breaking laws forcing all cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging are legal.
This was a very hard-fought battle in which millions of dollars were spent by large tobacco companies to frustrate the Australian Parliament’s ability to protect the health of its citizens. But the tobacco companies were not just worried about losing sales in Australia; their major concern was that other countries could follow Australia’s example. And they were right. New Zealand will probably be the next, while the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Norway and India are looking carefully at the Australian legislation.
It’s an important victory, as it shows that Big Tobacco can be taken on and beaten. Escalating the fight against cigarette marketing will hopefully reverse some disturbing statistics. According to the World Health Organization, in 2015, about 1.4 million people worldwide will die of smoking- related diseases. By 2030 that figure is expected to rise to ten million deaths a year. And while the tobacco companies have huffed and puffed about the moral right of smokers to do as they please, they should note the statement from the World Health Organization that describes tobacco as “the only legal consumer product that kills when used exactly as intended by the manufacturer.”
The legal case by Big Tobacco was based on the argument that forcing them to use plain labels robs them of the value of their brand, which is wrapped up in their logo and coloring of the packaging. While the tobacco companies couch the debate in terms of their right to protect their intellectual property, the Australian Minister for Health, Tania Plibersek, pointed out, “No longer when a smoker pulls out a packet of cigarettes will that packet be a mobile billboard.” The brand is only valuable if it shifts cigarettes and can only be harmed if fewer people buy the product, which, of course, means that fewer people will die of smoking-related illnesses.
Having been defeated in Australia, Big Tobacco is moving their legal fight offshore, hoping to apply the detections of intellectual property that are part of the World Trade Organization treaty. Unfortunately for them, corporations cannot take action on their own behalf. But, as it turns out, this is not a problem, for the Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have been so outraged by Australia’s action that they have foreshadowed their intention to launch international arbitration proceedings. The volume of trade from these countries with Australia is minimal, which means that it is highly unlikely that they have decided to take this action without the encouragement of Big Tobacco.