This article is part of our special report The fine line between brands and health.
Most people gain weight because of the lifestyle and measures like plain packaging will not provide the solutions we need, conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said.
“If we are getting fatter, it is because of changes in lifestyle, less exercise. I am not sure if there is a medical justification for the regulation in this regard,” emphasised the British politician, who is an MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
Hannan also criticised the fact that decisions are increasingly taken away from the consumers so that they can’t make their own choices. “Is it really the primacy of the state to care for that?”
Public institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) see the rising trend of imposing plain packaging on products in a positive light and say it provides a long-term benefit for public health.
On the other hand, companies fear that this measure is putting their brands at risk.
Speaking at an event organised by the Consumer Choice Center (CCC), Daniel Dalton, also an MEP from the ECR, stated: “We need to get lawmakers and politicians out of the way for brands and let consumers make their own decisions”.
CCC recently launched the “BrandsMatter!” initiative, whose main objective is to oppose the spread of plain packaging on any brand.
Advocates of plain packaging say it is a useful tool to address public health concerns, especially when it comes to the reduction of smokers or protection of vulnerable groups like children from the food industry’s “aggressive” marketing practices.
Emma Calvert, food policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), recently told EURACTIV that there was “indisputable evidence” that the marketing to children of foods high in fats, salt and sugar is strongly linked to childhood obesity.
“Brand characters are especially popular with young children. It is therefore essential that such persuasive marketing tools are appropriately used,” she said.
Plain packaging was first introduced in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which inspired the EU Tobacco Product Directive (TPD). The TPD does not oblige member states to impose such a measure but it gives them the opportunity to do so if they see the need for action.
The industry fears that tobacco-style legislation like plain packaging will “kill” its brands and ultimately hamper their business. Critics argue that this kind of legislation is gradually moving from tobacco to alcohol or even food that contains high sugar, fat or salt.
MEP: Strong brands for strong economies
Citing the example of Australia, which was the first to impose plain packaging in 2012, the industry says that plain packaging has helped smuggling and piracy flourish, noting that products are being manufactured without the authorisation of the rightful owners, with the intent to deceive consumers and avoid paying duty.
Stefano Maullu, an MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP), said that a robust property right system was needed to protect brands and avoid the misuse of a brand from other companies.
“A stronger property right system favours economic growth, but also human capital, research and innovation, environmental performance and the creation of social capital.”
“The most advanced economies are the ones that best protect brands. Property rights are fundamental for our society to prosper,” he said.
According to a report by the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), counterfeit products represent 5% of imports in the EU or €85 billion per year.
The European Commission is very well aware of this problem and has started introducing measures to fight counterfeiting.
Protecting of brands in the internal market is therefore of crucial importance, according to Amaryllis Verhoeven, head of the IP Unit of DG Growth.
“Today for the economy, brands matter: they stimulate competitiveness. Therefore, brand protection matters as well,” she said.
However, she emphasised that the measures are in place “to protect brands, but not brand freedom as such.”
“There is a need to tackle counterfeiting at the source and cut money streams which make it attractive to counterfeit,” says Verhoeven, noting that counterfeiters have benefited from the Internet and e-commerce for the sale of products.
She added that also illicit websites benefit from digital advertising, which increases revenue. Some of these websites also display adverts of products associated with legitimate brands, whose counterfeit versions they sell.
However, the Commission’s measures to tackle counterfeit imports are still weak compared to the size of the issue: In 2016, customs authorities seized around 41 million counterfeit goods, according to data published by the Commission.
The total value of the equivalent authentic products is estimated at around €672 million.
Verhoeven sees both sides bearing responsibility: “It is not only a duty for the public sector; we are also calling on the private parties to counteract counterfeiting.”