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October 28th, 2013:

Philip Morris leads bold challenge to Thai Government over legislation

While tobacco companies are known to lobby governments and MPs over legislation for tobacco control, Philip Morris is now leading them to take an even bolder step. They have filed an injunction against a move by Thailand’s health ministry to increase the size of graphic health warnings on cigarette packs to 85%, up from the current 55%, effectively making a direct challenge on the government’s mandate to rule. The court ruling for the injunction will delay the policy change by about 3 months, giving Philip Morris ample time to lobby against the new ruling.

from Ron Corben of Voice of America:

Thailand’s Health Ministry battles Big Tobacco over graphic health warnings

Major international tobacco companies are mounting a legal challenge to Thai health ministry plans to increase graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging. The court battle has wide implications for Thai health policy measures seeking to reduce smoking and combat cancer.

In Thailand lung cancer rates are rising for both sexes and becoming a leading cause of death in men.  In a policy backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health is planning to increase the size of anti-smoking advertisements on cigarette packaging from 55 percent of the package, to 85 percent.

The WHO believes the large graphic pictures of sick people suffering from the effects of smoking are one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking.

The warning signs are printed on the cigarette packets on sale in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP, VOA)

But new regulations that were due to come into effect on October 2 were blocked by international tobacco companies led by Philip Morris with a legal injunction.

The companies argue the ministry exceeded its legal authority and failed to consult thousands of retailers and manufacturers. They also claim the larger warnings undermine the use of trade marks to differentiate products in the market.

Pokpong Srisanit, a Thammasat University law professor, says the challenge to the health ministry by the companies is a first in Thailand.  “When the Ministry of Public Health announce a new regulation normally the big company and the small tobacco company obey the regulation. Now, the case of the 85 per cent pictorial health warning the three big companies sued the Ministry of Public Health — just one [the first] case in the history of tobacco control in Thailand,” he stated.

Thailand is adopting measures set out by the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which supports the use of health warnings on packaging to deter smokers.

The WHO said it is backing the Thai Government, and warnings on packaging are considered highly effective measures to reduce tobacco use.

International tobacco company, Philip Morris, argues that further regulations on the health effects of its products are unnecessary as the risks associated with smoking are already widely known.

Medical doctor, Prakit Vachesatogkit, an adviser to the Tobacco Control Division of the Ministry of Public Health, says Thailand is following policies similar to those in Australia, Uruguay and Sri Lanka in recent years.

“The net effect of the graphic warning is it will eventually decrease the smoking, it will make the smoker start to quit. It is not just on graphic warnings but other tobacco control measures such as the banning of smoking [in places], [and] price increases. So it’s a combination of effects,” said Vachesatogkit. “It will not just decrease the lung cancer it will also decrease other diseases as a result of decreased smoking.”

Australian lawyer and member of the Federal government’s expert advisory group on measures to reduce smoking, Jonathan Liberman, said the case is about governments ability to regulate industry in the interest of public health.

“Countries have to defend these measures against these legal claims and legal threats that are brought by the tobacco industry. It tries to intimidate governments and sue them, rather than just allow them to implement the measures that will reduce death and disease and enormous social and economic costs. The government’s can’t be intimidated there’s too much at stake,” said Liberman.

Both the companies and the Thai health ministry are presenting their cases before the Administrative Court. A ruling by the court is expected late this year or in early 2014.

8 Oct 2013

IT: Drug gangs turn to tobacco smuggling as recession bites

from Conor Lally of the Irish Times:

When the MV Anne Scan was searched by Customs officers in Greenore port in Co Louth in October 2009, it yielded 120 million cigarettes with a retail value of about €50 million. The smuggled consignment was the biggest found in Europe. The ship’s 250m-long hold contained large bags of animal feed – into each one had been placed boxes of 100,000 cigarettes.

“When we took away the animal feed, it took 16 40ft containers to move to the cigarettes,” Liam Irwin of the Revenue Commissioners said.

Tesco or somebody like that would find that [those logistics] hard to manage. We had to hire trucks to take them away and destroy [the cigarettes].”

Dockers on board the MV Anne Scan, which sailed from the Phillippines with a consignment of contraband cigarettes estimated to be worth about €50 million. (Irish Times)

Irwin is the most senior figure in Revenue with responsibility for trying to beat the smugglers. With seizures looking set to drop to a 15-year low this year, his job is getting harder.

Drug gangs hit hard in the recession as the demand for recreational drugs plummeted are turning to the booming demand for cheap cigarettes among consumers. The activities of cigarette gangs Irwin and his colleagues try to stop take various forms.

Some “ant” smugglers constantly travel on low-cost airlines to buy packets of cigarettes outside the EU for as little as €2 for a pack of 20. They are then smuggled back to Ireland for sale on the streets for €4.50 – half the retail price.

In larger operations, gangs source counterfeit cigarettes from illegal factories, mainly in China. These are made to look like major brands and can be bought for 50 cents for 20 and sold for €4.50 on the streets.

Other illegal factories abroad produce their own brand of cigarettes specifically for sale on the black market that are even cheaper than 50 cents a pack to buy wholesale. They can be sold here for €4.

Irwin said that with more 40ft containers than ever arriving at major ports being scanned by Revenue’s large X-ray machines, detections had been growing over the past 15 years.

However, smuggling gangs, frustrated at losing their hauls, have sought to combat Revenue’s success and more professional drug gangs are also involved in the trade.

Instead of booking full 40ft containers, they are booking smaller spaces in containers shared with several reputable businesses shipping legal goods.

Large orders of cigarettes sourced from illegal factories are then broken up and concealed before being packed into the containers that bring them to Ireland.

“At one time, concealment was barely done but now you’d suspect that the concealment of tobacco is getting as much attention as the concealment of drugs,” said Irwin. “We are seeing things like false ceilings [in containers] or something with lead on top of it to subvert X-ray scanning, that type of thing.”

He also believes large consignments are now being hidden in vans and driven into the State from ferries. To that end, Revenue has recently acquired a “van scan” that can X-ray vehicles. The scanners check if the consistency of the goods transported matches the description in the cargo’s paperwork.

Handheld X-ray devices are being acquired and four new tobacco sniffer dogs have been introduced.

Irwin said the increased sophistication in smuggling methods suggests the involvement of gangs previously involved in drug running, with profits just as big in cigarettes and sentences lower for those who are caught.

He accepted that Revenue needed to become better at mining local communities for information about the criminals that transport and sell the estimated 90,000 packets of black market cigarettes smoked every day in the Republic. This amounts to a daily loss to the State of excise duty and VAT running to €655,000.

“There was a survey done in the North a while back on how seriously people viewed a range of crimes. Illicit cigarettes were below speeding in the survey. It was regarded as not even being a misdemeanour. So that’s what we are up against.”

7 Oct 2013