WHO urged to end ‘ineffective’ tobacco plain packaging

An illustration photo taken on the counter of a cigarette vendor's store shows France's new 'neutral' cigarette packs, replacing logos on the packaging with health warnings and graphic images of tobacco-related illnesses. [EPA/IAN LANGSDON]

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.

In an open letter to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Gehbreyesus, an international alliance of 62 think tanks, advocacy groups and civil-society organisations said it was time to end “ineffective” plain packaging for any kind of product.

The alliance said they had sent the letter in response to a growing number of plain packaging tobacco control measures in a number of countries.

Citing Australia as an example, the alliance said the measure on tobacco was a “complete failure”.

“The most recent batch of data [from the Australian government] is from 2016, and for the first time in 23 years, it reports no statistically significant decline in the overall daily smoking rate between 2013 (12.8%) and 2016 (12.2%),” the letter reads.

The organisations also said that the costs generated by plain packaging were “enormous” due to the “loss of the innovation incentive to the economy and society” and the “mutilation of established international IP law”.

“Intellectual property rights are human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 17, the right to ownership, Article 19, the right to freedom of expression, and article 27, the right to protection of material interests. In this regard, even if plain packaging is effective, it should still be repealed, as rights are inalienable and should not be discarded for political purposes,” the letter reads.

A key tool to reduce smoking

Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging for tobacco more than four years ago.

In the eyes of the 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 came into force in May 2016 and introduced stricter measures on 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.

The European Commission 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.

“Any loss in the industry’s revenues or a country’s tax revenues from tobacco products arising from e.g. health warnings or plain packaging should be counterbalanced against the cost to the economy of treating people with smoking-related diseases,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV in August 2017.

Smoking-related diseases cost €25.3 billion every year in healthcare across the EU, while an additional €8.3 billion is lost due to absenteeism and premature retirement, the official pointed out.

Tobacco makers denounce 'brand theft' from plain packaging

The trend towards imposing plain packaging on tobacco products has made industry executives furious and denounce “Brussels-led overregulation” that effectively leads to “brand theft”.

Positive impact 

For the European Network of Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP), a non-profit organisation, there is “clear scientific evidence” that plain packaging has a positive impact on public health.

The organisation refers to fourteen peer-reviewed papers published in a special supplement to the British Medical Journal in March 2015, according to which plain packaging in Australia reduced positive perceptions of cigarette packs among teenagers.  In addition, smokers were paying more attention to graphic health warnings, the research found.

Regarding the economic impact of plain packaging, ENSP said it was “not the first time we hear this kind of catastrophic scenarios and usually, it is the argument from the tobacco industry. How strange?”

“Tobacco is a unique product as it is the only one on the market that kills 50% of its consumers when used as intended. To replace those who die from their addiction, and those who decide to eventually quit, the tobacco industry needs to recruit young people,” ENSP told EURACTIV.

“The last marketing tool left for the tobacco industry is obviously the packaging, with its colourful, attractive, vibrant designs. Let’s not treat tobacco as any other consumer product, because it is not,” it added.

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