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Tobacco: public health comes first

PUBLISHED: 17 Aug 2012 00:08:31 | UPDATED: 17 Aug 2012 00:32:55PUBLISHED: 17 Aug 2012PRINT EDITION: 17 Aug 2012

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The Australian Financial Review

Tobacco companies are understandably alarmed that the federal government’s legislation for plain packaging of cigarettes could be replicated by Britain, New Zealand, India and the European Union, among others.(HKG ?) After the High Court rejected the tobacco companies’ argument that they were entitled to compensation because the laws constituted an acquisition of their intellectual property, from December 1 tobacco products will have to be sold in packaging with no distinguishing brand marks.

Tobacco companies are pursuing other legal avenues, including challenging the laws under a bilateral investment treaty with Hong Kong, and in the World Trade Organisation.

This newspaper favours the use of market mechanisms to achieve policy outcomes rather than the imposition of regulations that restrict the use of private property. While the government does have a legitimate interest in public health, individuals also have a right to decide their tobacco use.

The plain-packaging laws don’t impinge on personal use, but they do take the drastic step of allowing the commonwealth to limit the use of trademarks in which the tobacco companies have invested heavily. And the Australian Industry Group raises a valid concern that the precedent could be used against other goods. There is already pressure to impose tougher regulation on fast food and alcohol.

However, Australia has had some big wins in improving public health through regulation, for example by imposing seatbelt laws. High taxes on tobacco products have helped cut the incidence of smoking by half, to about 15 per cent of the population. Given that there is no safe way to consume tobacco products, and that smoking-related expenses are at least $12 billion a year, taxes would have to double to cover the cost of health problems tobacco creates. In that situation, the plain-packaging laws may be a necessary evil.

The Australian Financial Review

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