Plain packaging works, industry and its reps scream

3 June 2016

The WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, in her World No Tobacco Day message referred to tobacco packaging as a form of advertising and promotion that often misleads consumers and serves to hide the “deadly reality of tobacco use.” She said, “We do this for a very good reason: plain packaging works.”

In the build-up to WNTD, pro-tobacco industry groups stepped-up their protest to counter plain packaging. Three countries in the ASEAN region who have started preparations to adopt standardised packaging – Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia – have been targeted.

The Singapore government conducted a public consultation process which ended on 29 March. On 27 March, Minimal Government, a group based in Manila, sent a letter to the Health Promotion Board, saying “Plain packaging is wrong” and that “it can adversely affect Singapore’s good image on protecting intellectual property rights”.

Malaysia has faced intense anti-plain packaging protests. In February, the 4th Asia Liberty Forum was held in Kuala Lumpur, which featured a session: “Protecting Yourself Against Daylight Robbery — Current Challenges to Property Rights”. Anti-plain packaging sentiments were drummed up at this session. For example a presentation from an American group, Reason Foundation, titled “Marks vs. Marx”, portrayed standardised packs as IPR confiscation and stealing.

The Malaysian Chair of the session is head of two organisations, IDEAS and SEANET, and has been vocal about anti-plain packaging. He used his weekly column in an English daily to attack the Ministry of Health’s announcement on plain packaging in March calling it paternalism that is bad for the country.

Minimal Government, IDEAS and SEANET have added their signatures to an “International Coalition Letter Against Plain Packaging” to the Director-General of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan. This coalition has 47 groups. On June 2nd another pro-industry group, Property Rights Alliance based in Washington D.C. sent the same letter to the Malaysian press.

Meanwhile a regional pro-industry group, the ASEAN Intellectual Property Association (AIPA) has been sending statements and letters to the Malaysian press attacking the Ministry of Health’s plans for plain packaging claiming it violates WTO rules. See here and here. SEATCA has countered the arguments of this pro-industry group. See here and here.

Health advocates have stood firm to support the government. The Consumers Association of Penang hascalled for plain packaging of cigarette packs to make it less ‘attractive’ to smokers, particularly women and youths. The National Cancer Society of Malaysia has urged the government to implement its proposal for plain tobacco packaging by January 2017, insisting the move would save lives that would otherwise be lost to smoking.

Only the tobacco industry and its representatives keep insisting plain packaging does not work. Tobacco is responsible for more than 500,000 preventable deaths in the ASEAN region. Since there is no product recall and tobacco is still sold, plain packaging is the way to go to reduce these preventable deaths.

See here for new WHO document on plain packaging.