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Tobacco label fight heats up

“Plain packaging” can be a method to reduce tobacco use?

“Plain packaging” can be a method to reduce tobacco use?

International tobacco companies are preparing to mount a no-holdsbarred legal and lobbying campaign to stop Australia becoming the first country to introduce so-called “plain packaging” for cigarettes.

A United States-based lobby group took the unusual step of making a submission on the issue last year and the Australian-based American Chamber of Commerce is reviewing whether it will take a position.

Plain packaging, one of the key recommendations of a report last year to federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon on a national preventative health strategy, would stop tobacco companies using glossy paper, colours or fonts to decorate cigarette packets even in the parts of the package not already taken up by warnings.

Brand names such as “Marlboro” or “Peter Jackson” could still appear on the packet but would be much smaller and in a dull, nondescript font.

Ms Roxon said she would respond “in a short time” to the recommendations, which include a substantial increase in the excise tax on cigarettes and more funding for quit advertising.

A Senate inquiry is also due to start hearings soon on a private member’s bill by Steve Fielding on plain packaging.

In a sign of the global interest, Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, a major Washington-based business lobby group, made a submission to the preventative health taskforce.

“We think that a move to mandate generic packaging would establish a bad precedent for companies from both of our countries,“Mr Donohue said.

“We would hope that the Australian government will not take this step.”

Charles Blunt, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia, said his group was now reviewing whether to take a position on the intellectual property implications of plain packaging.

Mr Blunt said the local American Chamber had been aware of the US Chamber’s submission last year but had not joined it.

Stanton Glantz, an anti-smoking campaigner at the University of California in San Francisco, said it was the first time he had ever heard of the US Chamber of Commerce, which usually deals with US domestic issues, getting involved in another country: “This is pretty amazing.”

Mr Glantz said internal documents made public during the US tobacco trials revealed close links between Big Tobacco and the US chamber.

Tobacco companies in the US are mounting a legal challenge after the Obama administration convinced Congress to pass a law that could allow the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, including by plain packaging.

The US Chamber has been split by its opposition to several Obama administration initiatives, and Apple quit the organisation over its stance on climate change.

Mathew Rimmer, an intellectual property expert at the Australian National University College of Law, said Australia was one of the first countries to give serious consideration to plain packaging and tobacco firms were concerned that once it was passed in one country, the approach could spread.

“There’s an international strategy. It’s part of an orchestrated campaign to squash plain packaging,” Dr Rimmer said.

The tobacco industry argues plain packaging breaches trademark law and amounts to confiscation of property without confiscation.

But anti-smoking groups say courts around the world have consistently upheld governments’ right to restrict the use of trademarks on serious public health grounds such as tobacco-related death.

Source: Prof. Judith Longstaff Mackay, Senior Advisor of & Geoff Winestock, Australian Financial Review

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