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North America and Scandinavia join plain packaging ranks; tobacco industry denies the fight is lost

This week’s annual World No Tobacco Day was a landmark one for health and anti-tobacco groups, with three governments announcing imminent plain packaging measures. Canada, New Zealand and Norway all made separate announcements on their plans for standardised packaging – a move that one tobacco company tells World Trademark Review was “expected” but is not the end of the fight.

Canada became the first North American country to signal its intention to join the plain packaging fold, with minister of health, Jane Philpott, launching a “formal consultation period” that will run until August 31. This is the first tangible step the new Canadian government has made since confirming its intention to remove trademarks from tobacco products late last year. Philpott’s main argument for introducing the measure – beyond the health implications of tobacco products – is the affect branding can have on younger generations. “I don’t believe tobacco companies should be allowed to build brand loyalty with children, for a product that could kill them,” she said. “Research shows that plain packaging of tobacco products is an effective way to deter people from starting to smoke and will bolster our efforts to reduce tobacco use in Canada.”

Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Cancer Society voiced their support of the government’s announcement. The organisation’s senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham claimed that, in his view, the tobacco industry wouldn’t be kicking up a stink about standardised packaging if it were not effective: “It is precisely because plain packaging will reduce sales that tobacco companies are objecting so loudly. Tobacco companies should not be able to use the package as mini-billboards to promote tobacco. It is a highly addictive, lethal product and should not be sold in packages made to be more attractive.”

However, Igor Dzaja, general manager of tobacco company JTI-Macdonald, was quick to hit back, saying that the new Canadian government’s focus should instead be on dangerous counterfeit products being sold to young people. “Instead of implementing another misguided regulation,” he claims, “the government of Canada should be combating illegal cigarettes which are untested, untaxed, unregulated and widely available to minors at lunch-money prices.” Dzaja, who confirmed to us that JTI-Macdonald will be submitting comments to the formal consultation, went on to claim that the federal government is already lining up legislation that would restrict trademarks on other products sectors, saying it has “committed” to introducing new marketing and labelling restrictions on food and beverages. “Plain packaging affects the entire business community, not just the tobacco sector,” he adds. “If one industry is deprived of its intellectual property, all trademark owners will lose.”

Nonetheless, both New Zealand and Norway also followed suit on the same day. The New Zealand introduction (which was predicted earlier in the year) will be preceded by a two-month consultation period, but the government is hopeful that legislation will be implemented next year. The country’s prime minister, John Key, admitted that witnessing other countries adopt plain packaging has emboldened his stance on the measure – and that the fear over subsequent legal action is softening as well. “[Tobacco companies] may well take a case against the government, but the advice we have been getting over time now has been that the risks of them being successful is reducing,” Key told local reporters. Norway is also hoping to implement standardised packaging next year, and would be the first Scandinavian country to do so. As has been introduced already in Australia and the UK, the proposed packaging was announced as being dark green and with no logos or designs (it is expected the Canadian and New Zealand plain packs will follow this trend).

With three more dominoes falling in just one day – following Australia, Ireland and the UK having already implemented plain packaging, and many more announcing their intention to do so (the International Trademark Assocation has submitted their comments to three of which during the first quarter of 2016) – could the debate on the removal of trademarks from packaging be nearly over? Not according to JTI International’s director of external communications Jonathan Duce. He told us that, with the WTO expected imminently, the battle is not yet lost. “This year’s World No Tobacco Day had a plain packaging theme, so a flurry of announcements was expected,” he says. “Nevertheless, we don’t believe it is a given that all governments will go down this route, and once the evidence is reviewed, it should be clear to anyone that branding bans are flawed on many levels. Ultimately, the WTO decision will set a form of precedent and potentially set the course for future debates on other product categories.”

We, and figures from both sides of the debate, wait with bated breath for the WTO decision – it looks like it could be the tobacco industry’s final charge into battle before having to contemplate defeat.

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