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Plain cigarette packaging likely to snowball globally

One of Australia’s leading anti-smoking campaigners says a “snowball” effect is likely to result in plain packaging for cigarettes being introduced in a number of new countries over the next decade, after tobacco company Philip Morris lost a court case challenging Australia’s strict packaging laws.

The Singapore-based Permanent Court of Arbitration declined on jurisdictional grounds to allow the company’s case to proceed against the Australian government’s plain packaging laws, which were passed in 2011 to curb smoking rates.

Under the Australian laws, the first of their kind, no branding is allowed on cigarette packages and retailers must store tobacco products behind blank screens or cabinets. In addition, cigarette packages in Australia also show large graphic warnings of the possible health effects of smoking.

Public Health Association of Australia spokesman Mike Daube, who chaired the government committee which recommended plain packaging, said the Singapore court’s decision was a major blow to “Big Tobacco”.

“People who work in tobacco talk about the scream test – the louder the tobacco industry screams the more you know you are on the right track,” he said.

“The tobacco industry’s campaign against plain packaging in Australia is more ferocious than anything I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been working in this area.

“They have fought it in the media, they have fought it in parliament, they have fought it in the courts – and they have lost all of the way through.”

Daube said that he expected to see the success of Australia’s policy – which researchers say has led to a reduction in smoking rates and the volume of tobacco sold – cause a “snowball effect”, encouraging other nations to implement similar laws.

Plain tobacco packaging is currently being introduced in the UK and Ireland, while a number of other countries are also considering legislative changes.

“Australia is showing that you can beat Big Tobacco,” Daube said.

“What we’re now seeing, and this often happens in public health, is that once one country successfully implements change, other countries follow. There is a leapfrog effect. “It’s going to be tough, because the industry is desperate for new markets, but I think we will see plain packaging in many more countries over the next decade.”

Tobacco companies say plain packaging laws breach international regulations for trademarks and, along with the case in Singapore, the Australian government is also still facing challenges within the World Trade Organisation.

Philip Morris’ International senior vice president and general counsel Marc Firestone said in a statement on Friday that it was “regrettable that the [Singapore court] outcome hinged entirely on a procedural issue”.

“There’s nothing in today’s outcome that addresses, let alone validates, plain packaging in Australia or anywhere else,” he said, adding that the company was considering further legal options.

But Australia’s Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash, who is in charge of the government’s smoking policies, said in a statement on Friday that “plain packaging…is consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations”.

“We welcome the unanimous decision by the tribunal agreeing with Australia’s position that it has no jurisdiction to hear Philip Morris’ claim,” she said.

“Smoking does untold harm to Australians, causing deaths from cancer, lung and heart disease, and hurting families.” – Al Jazeera

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