Public Release: 

Australia vs. big tobacco: Battle lines are drawn on plain packaging

Lancet

Australia is planning to implement plain packaging for all brands of cigarettes during 2012, and recently introduced a bill to its parliament. However, an Editorial in The Lancet Oncology says that while many countries of varying income are supporting Australia's trailblazing stance, a substantial number of developing countries are aligning themselves with the tobacco industry.

Member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) gathered in June for a meeting of the organization's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council. New Zealand, Norway, and Uruguay have expressed support for plain packaging, as have India, who agree plain packaging is antismoking. But the Dominican Republic, with support or sympathy from Honduras, Nicaragua, Ukraine, the Philippines, Zambia, Mexico, Cuba, and Ecuador, said it had "serious and grave concerns" about the bill, saying it violated international trademark law, and would drive down costs leading to increased counterfeiting.

However, legal advisors who support the legislation have told The Lancet Oncology that they are confident the draft law fully complies with WTO obligations, and that they hope the case would provide an endorsement under international law of the importance of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The Editorial says that the tobacco industry is important to many of these countries in terms of tax revenue and jobs, hence their alignment with big tobacco. However, these countries must also consider the health impact of the tobacco epidemic. Tobacco companies also continue to campaign against the legislation within Australia, running television advertisements and labelling the nation as a nanny state. But the country's Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon remains resolute, backed by experts who say plain packets can break the affiliation smokers have with a particular brand thereby helping them to quit, and also prevent teenagers from becoming smokers.

Despite Australia's tobacco market being worth only AUS$10 billion--small on a global scale--big tobacco is trying to stop this law as it will set a precedent with Canada, the UK, and New Zealand, all expected to follow Australia's lead. The US FDA is also looking at its cigarette packaging . The Editorial concludes: "It is unsurprising, therefore, that the tobacco industry should use its influence over other players to delay, frustrate, and block this important initiative. The sovereignty of countries should be absolute and not be influenced by multinational companies with complex accountability. This laudable move towards plain packaging must not be derailed by veiled tactics from companies with vested interests. Only then can progress be made to tackle tobacco-associated diseases, which are largely preventable, but mostly lethal."

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The Lancet Oncology Press Office. T) +44 (0) 20 7424 4949 E) tony.kirby@lancet.com

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