WHO and EU clash with tobacco industry over plain packaging effectiveness

A female shop assistant serves a customer as all cigarettes in the shop are covered by a white sheet at a 'Tabac' (tobacco shop) in Montpellier, Southern France. [EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO]

This article is part of our special report The fine line between brands and health.

The drive to impose plain packaging on tobacco products, in the hope of discouraging current and potential smokers, has pitted the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU against the tobacco industry.

The industry says plain packaging has no visible impact on smoking rates while it opens the door to black markets. On the contrary, the WHO insists on the effectiveness of the measure and rules out any link to illicit trade.

From its side, the EU has adopted a “wait and see” approach, expecting 2.4 million fewer smokers over a five-year period of the new Tobacco Product Directive (TPD) implementation.

A new research conducted by consultancy group Europe Economics showed that the introduction of plain packaging has had no statistically significant impact on smoking prevalence in the UK and on consumption in the UK.

The research, which was based on government data and commissioned by Japan Tobacco International (JTI), found that three out of five UK adults believe plain packaging will lead to an increase in the number of illegal cigarettes, benefiting organised crime.

“What this evidence and public opinion research shows is that plain packaging should never have been introduced in the UK. Other European countries considering the measure should think twice before importing a failed experiment, which appears to have back-fired big time”, Ben Townsend, Head of EU Affairs for JTI, told EURACTIV.com.

“One year ago, the UK government introduced plain packaging for tobacco products in the absence of clear supportive evidence from Australia [at the time, the only country in the world to have introduced the policy]. Five-and-a-half years into the Australian experiment, we see that plain packaging has completely failed to reduce smoking rates”, he added.

Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging for tobacco in 2012.

In the eyes of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and public health NGOs, plain packaging is a key tool to reduce the appeal of smoking, especially among young people. France, Hungary, Ireland, Slovenia and the UK are among the countries in Europe that have adopted this measure.

At EU level, the revised Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) came into force in May 2016 and introduced stricter measures on the packaging. For example, 65% of a packet’s surface should include health warning pictures and text.

But member states were also offered the opportunity to take additional measures, such as plain packaging.

Plain packaging: ‘Brand-theft’ or better consumer protection?

The rising trend of imposing plain packaging on unhealthy products has raised eyebrows in the industry, which fears that its brands are under threat. The World Health Organisation, on the other hand, insists that the measure provides a long-term benefit for public health.

Consumption drop expected

The European Commission, on the other hand, is supportive of plain packaging as part of a range of anti-smoking preventive measures. The EU executive also rejects the argument that plain packaging comes at a cost to the EU economy.

A European Commission spokesperson said that plain packaging was outside the scope of the TPD.

“However, the directive clarifies that its provisions do not affect the right of member states to maintain or introduce further requirements in relation to the standardisation of the packaging of tobacco products (plain packaging), where it is justified on grounds of public health, taking into account the high level of protection of public health achieved through the Directive”, the spokesperson emphasised.

Asked whether the TPD already has some tangible results, the spokesperson said the legislation entered into force in May 2014 with a transposition deadline for member states of May 2016.

“The Commission will issue a report on the application of the Directive in line with the provision of its Article 28. According to the impact assessment estimates, the application of the Directive is expected to result in a 2% drop in consumption over a five-year period, corresponding to 2.4 million smokers, which will translate into improvements in public health”, the EU official added.

WHO urged to end 'ineffective' tobacco plain packaging

The removal of brands from packaging is a “gross violation” of intellectual property rights and has failed to achieve its intended goals, the Property Rights Alliance argues in a letter to the World Health Organisation.

WHO: Plain packaging works

On the other hand, the WHO has a different standpoint about the effectiveness of plain packaging in decreasing smoking rates.

In an emailed response, the WHO told EURACTIV that in Australia there was evidence showing that plain packaging clearly contributed to the overall decline in smoking there.

“The analysis finds that about a quarter of the drop in prevalence observed in the months subsequent to introduction could be attributed to the plain packaging policy. The Post-Implementation Review concluded that plain packaging has contributed along with other tobacco control policies to continuing reductions in the prevalence of smoking.”

As for France and the UK, WHO said the plain package policies were introduced recently and the time period is too short to make any analysis, also taking into account that during that period, tobacco companies were allowed to sell their previous stocks.

“WHO is working closely with countries on all policy measures contained in the WHO FCTC, including plain packaging. We are supporting countries to adopt stronger policies and implement them as well as monitor the progress and the impact of policies in countries.”

As far as the argument that plain packaging risks increasing the illegal trade activities, the WHO insisted that this is not the case.

“Plain packaging, as well as all other evidence-based tobacco control policies, is not leading to the illicit trade in tobacco products.  Illicit trade globally is not related to health policies but rather to the work of other sectors in countries mandated to control illicit trade in general, such as border control, customs, police,” it noted.

“Evidence is very clear; the level of the illicit trade is not related to the strong tobacco control policies in countries,” it said, attributing it to factors such as weak governance, corruption and ineffective customs among others.

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