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.

8 Comments for this entry

  • Ian Orchard says:

    Good job Australia.

  • QT says:

    When you say tobacco is the only product that kills when used exactly as intended by the manufacturer, I wonder if gun manufacturers are relieved that they’ve escaped this label or furious that they’ve been blatantly overlooked for this title…

  • George T says:

    You say that Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic are challenging Australia’s anti-tobacco laws. Wow, either these countries privately hate their own citizens or they want a quiet and legal way to eliminate that pesky overpopulation problem…

  • Stefan Sojka says:

    I believe the Australian Government has gone about this the completely wrong way, giving tobacco companies a legal way to fight. What they should have done is treat cigarettes (and alcohol) like any other dangerous drug, and use pharmaceutical controls, such as registering addicts, making them available only on prescription and under medical supervision and keeping them out of sight at point of sale (which at least they they started doing). Sticking big horrible images of grotesque diseases on packaging is just an insult to everyone’s intelligence and creates a massive double standard for tobacco which of course they can fight, because grotesque images of diseased organs aren’t forced upon us for every single other unhealthy product or activity within our visual range – nor would we want them to be. We would expect, however, that all dangerous drugs be brought under the health system and controlled in the same way pharmaceutical companies are happy to allow their dangerous drugs to be controlled. Of course there will still be lobbyists for industry trying to get around the controls or loosen them, but at least there is no hypocrisy within the prescription medication system, where one dangerous drug has to have diseased organs on its packaging, another can sponsor a football team, another is illegal and can put you in jail for just using it and another can be obtained simply by asking your doctor to write you a prescription.

    • Harry says:

      You are right. Tobacco is certainly a dangerous drug, more addictive than cocaine and heroin. The problem is that it is also a social drug, and prohibition (as you suggest) is unlikely to work, for the same reasons that it didn’t work in the US during the 1920s and 1930s. I haven’t seen the data on whether putting horrible images on packages works, and I have my doubts. Most people today know that smoking is bad for their health. One thing that plain packaging will do is to undermine guerrilla marketing tactics used by cigarette companies (via social media) to recruit young smokers, and topic that I dealt with in an earlier blog posting (http://harryblutstein.com/globalization/tobacco-company-recruit-young-smokers/)

      • Stefan Sojka says:

        Sorry, Harry, I think you misunderstood… I am not suggesting prohibition at all. I am suggesting control. Control, under pharmaceutical regimes, that treat all dangerous drugs, social or otherwise, as dangerous drugs. They are controlled already, just in the wrong way. Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have very strict controls on how they market their drugs and how people can purchase them and they would never get away with guerrilla marketing tactics. Of course they try, but they have to play by very strict rules, as should any drug purveyor.

        • Harry says:

          Thanks for the correction, although I think it may be a fine point. During Prohibition in the US, alcohol was a proscribed substance, which doctors could and did prescribe.

          • Stefan Sojka says:

            Thank you. Interesting point! It probably would work a bit better these days, with technology supporting any introduced or modified control system. You don’t want to make a drug so hard to buy that it is easier to buy from the mafia. : ) A card system, linked to medical records and a referral system to specialists for problem users would not be unreasonable, considering the cost of not controlling things more effectively.

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  • PMD

    Did you know that the Murdoch press, in Australia, US and UK, are running a coordinated campaign to denounce plain packaging, quote erroneous data that suggests that cigarette consumption has gone up since the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, using industry data. Official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which is much more credible suggests the opposite. This has not stopped the Murdoch press continuing to repeat their lies.

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