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A boost to global drive for stricter anti-tobacco laws

In a significant boost to stricter tobacco control laws, the Australian government on Friday won an international legal battle against tobacco giant Phillip Morris, which had challenged “plain packaging” laws.

Globally, the public health community has been demanding implementation of “plain tobacco packaging” — which means standardised packaging of tobacco products without any exclusive branding (colours, imagery, corporate logos and trademarks). The laws will only allow the manufacturers to print the brand name in a mandated size and font. Australia, the first country to implement these laws, had passed the plain packaging legislation in November 2011.

The Australian tribunal in the arbitration, based in Singapore, unanimously agreed with Australia’s position and gave a verdict against Phillip Morris. The verdict was awaited by many countries wanting to implement stricter tobacco control legislation. “The judgment in favour of Australia is a vindication of policy taken in public interest. It is important that judiciary everywhere in the world recognises the irrefutable evidence on the incalculable harm done by tobacco to the health of millions across the world. Law must prioritise societal interest over narrow corporate interests, while adjudicating on matters of public policy,” said K. Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and one of the leading voices of India’s anti-tobacco campaign.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) India report, smoking kills over one million people in India annually and is the fourth leading cause of non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as cancer and heart diseases, which account for 53 per cent of all deaths in India. According to the Health Ministry, economic burden of tobacco consumption is around Rs.1,04,500 crore per annum.

Biju Janata Dal MP Jay Panda had introduced a private member’s Bill on plain packaging, demanding that pictorial warnings occupy at least 60 per cent of the front panel of the pack. He welcomed the verdict given by the Australian tribunal.

“This is an issue that is close to my heart. I have been fervently advocating this reform as a measure to control tobacco consumption in our country; especially since India is the second largest consumer of tobacco. Given the scale of the issue facing us, today’s verdict would offer us greater confidence to follow Australia’s lead towards a stronger public health policy. In this light, I urge all stakeholders to stick to the important April 1, 2016 notification for increased pictorial health warnings.”

In July 2014, the Allahabad High Court allowed a writ petition asking for implementation of plain packaging and directed the government to implement the scheme at the earliest.

The laws are to be implemented in India by April 2016.

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