Plain packaging advances, libertarian groups resume opposition

13 April 2018:

The Sri Lanka Cabinet has just approved a proposal to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products. To date, seven countries have standardised packaging of tobacco while many other governments have started preparation to introduce them.

Only one group stands to lose in plain packaging – the tobacco industry. They have found a lobby in libertarian groups to launch attacks on plain packaging.

On 22 March, a group of 62 libertarian organisations and think tanks sent an open letter to the Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO), using intellectual property rights (IPR) as their main argument to oppose plain packaging. This is their second letter to WHO; the first letter was sent a few years ago.

When governments apply standardised packaging to tobacco, they do not violate IPR. But that has not stopped the tobacco industry and its allies who keep using this argument anyway. The tactic is to put governments on the defence and wastes their time defending their public health measure. It also serves as a regulatory chill on governments who have limited resources for tobacco control.

The two open letters were coordinated by the Property Rights Alliance (PRA), based in Washington, D.C. that describes itself as an advocacy project that defends IPR. According to TobaccoTactics, the PRA is indirectly funded by tobacco and has been opposing plain packaging legislation since 2012, claiming that plain packaging is not an effective tobacco control measure and threatens individual property rights of people.

Three organisations from ASEAN countries were among the signatories on the letter to WHO: the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Malaysia, the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) and the Philippines based Minimal Government Thinkers (MGT). However these three countries have not commenced preparation on plain packaging.

In 2016, the Malaysian Ministry of Health announced they are considering plain packaging and the proposal was hit with a chorus of opposition by IPR association and IDEAS. A closer look at IDEAS’ supporters revels tobacco companies are among its funders (Table 1).

Ref: 20152016 and 2017

Both Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International fund IDEAS. This funding may help provide an insight into the consistently pro-tobacco industry positions of IDEAS and their recent interest in tobacco control.

In Indonesia, the government has been in the forefront of challenging the plain packaging measures of Australia. Millions of poor smokers in Indonesia and the Philippines buy single sticks from street vendors and don’t receive the health warning messages on cigarette packs. While CIPS and the MGT champion intellectual property as a human right, they are silent about respecting the human right to health and the right to receiving factual information on harms caused by smoking.

The signatories of the open letters to WHO echo the tobacco industry’s claim plain packaging is not effective in Australia. However in reality, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2016 revealed that smoking rates significantly decreased in daily smokers aged 14 years or older from 15.1% to 12.2%, between 2010 and 2016. Plain packaging, combined with other tobacco control measures, has contributed to this decline in smoking.

The second open letter to the WHO rehashes previous arguments such as IPR and how millions of jobs will be affected however provide no evidence on jobs lost due to plain packaging now in effect in several countries. Tobacco control measures, such as plain packaging, do not cause unemployment.

Illicit trade in tobacco is another recycled pro-tobacco industry argument to dismiss plain packaging. At the country level, IDEAS has used this argumentto oppose tax increase in Malaysia with its own research. Although there has been no tax increase on tobacco in recent years, smuggling remains a problem in Malaysia.

In short, plain packaging is effective to reduce tobacco use and this alarms the tobacco industry which has used its resources to mobilise opposition. Governments must proceed with standardised packaging as a public health measure to save lives.