Australia wins plain packaging case against Philip Morris

Heartiest congratulations to the Australian Government for winning its plain packaging case against Philip Morris Asia. The tribunal in the arbitration, based in Singapore, issued a unanimous decision agreeing with Australia that it has no jurisdiction to hear Philip Morris’s claim. Philip Morris Asia had claimed that the plain packaging laws amounted to “ban on trademarks”, hence “breached foreign investment protections”. However with this decision Australia’s plain-packaging laws introduced in 2011, will remain in place. 

The tobacco industry had earlier lost its legal challenges in the High Court of Australia and now in an international investment treaty.

This good news is significant for public health not just for Australia but for the whole world as it sends a powerful message to governments to persevere. Several countries around the world are in various stages of introducing plain packaging: the UK, Ireland and France have approved legislation, while New Zealand’s law is in Parliament.

Governments in the ASEAN region should take the cue and move forward to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco. Philip Morris sells skinny cigarette sticks in lipstick packs to target women and cheap kiddie packs to lure the young and the poor in several countries. Standardised packing of both the pack and the sticks will put an end to such unscrupulous tactics.

Australia is fortunate to have sufficient financial resources and strong legal expertise to defend itself against Philip Morris Asia. However low income countries in Asia don’t have many millions to spare and the tobacco industry exploits this vulnerability and launches legal threats and challenges to discourage governments from moving forward to strengthen legislation.

Currently eight out of the ten ASEAN countries already have pictorial health warnings (PHW) on cigarette packs – Thailand (85%), Brunei (75%), Malaysia (50/60%), Singapore (50%), Vietnam (50%), Indonesia (40%), Philippines (50%, March 2016) and Cambodia (55% – July 2016). Since the health warnings on the packs must be revised every two years, these countries should move towards standardised packaging.

Tobacco companies have opposed prominent PHW in practically every country that introduced them. They typically oppose the PHW, and then lobby to reduce the size and delay implementation. This year Cambodia approved PHW legislation and experienced opposition – the tobacco industry told the government that there is no credible evidence that pictorial warnings reduced smoking prevalence.

The tobacco industry fears standardised packaging of tobacco and spend huge amounts of money aggressively fighting it, claiming it is not effective. If it doesn’t work, why do tobacco companies fight plain packaging so hard?

For more information on pictorial health warnings among ASEAN countries, see:

For information on TI denormalization, check out SEATCA’s Tobacco Industry Watch website

Previous ASEAN Tobacco Watch updates can be found here