With a federal election scheduled for this coming Saturday, things are reaching a climax in the political climate in my home country of Australia.
One hot topic: plans of the current Labour government to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging from the middle of 2012 onwards.
With reservations, I support this plan. Governments do have a responsibility regarding public health, and this does include undertaking appropriate measures to curb cigarette consumption.
Nevertheless, the proposal does raise disturbing questions about intellectual property rights and how far governments should go in terms of intervening in standard commercial practices.
About the plan:
Announced last April, the plan represents the latest development in efforts on the part of the Australian government to curb cigarette consumption.
Under the plan, which the governing Labour Party claims is a world-first, the following requirements will apply to the packaging of all cigarettes sold in Australia from 01 July 2012 onwards:
• all cigarettes will be sold in plain packaging (the government will specifically develop and test packaging design that will make cigarettes less attractive – especially to young people);
• tobacco industry logos, brand imagery, colors and promotional text (other than brand names in a standard colour, position, font style and size) will not be allowed on cigarette packaging; and
• graphic health warnings displayed on packaging will be expanded and updated.
The positive side – reduced consumption
Contrary to claims by the Alliance for Australian Retailers (ARR), a lobby group for Australian retailers supported by the tobacco industry, the plan is likely to discourage smoking and help reduce overall cigarette consumption.
For one thing, the extent to which retailers and big tobacco have opposed the plan (the AAR was created specifically for the purpose of campaigning against plain packaging) does appear to contradict their claims. Indeed, the fact that they are so opposed to the idea indicates that they fear just how effective it might be.
Moreover, the idea of plain packaging resulting in lower levels of cigarette consumption than would otherwise be the case does make sense. For any given product, cigarettes included, cleverly designed packaging makes buying more attractive – vice versa for merchandise packaged in plain or unattractive colours.
That matters. According to the World Health Organization, smoking kills more than five million people worldwide each year, accounting for one in every ten adult deaths. And this is not to mention the pain and suffering endured by those who contract smoking related diseases whilst they are alive. Nor does it account for broader economic costs associated with tobacco related illnesses, particularly in terms of health related expenditure and lost productivity.
The negative side:
Nevertheless, the proposal does raise two key areas of concern:
• Intellectual property rights.
In a submission to a senate enquiry, the Property Rights Alliance (PRA), a global organisation dedicated to the protection of physical and intellectual property rights, asserts that the proposed legislation would violate the intellectual property rights of tobacco manufacturers under two international treaties: the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Individual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the Paris Convention.
Without a legal background, I am in no position to make informed comment as to whether or not PRA’s assertion is correct.
What I will say, however, is that this is a serious matter. Without exception, all rights granted under international treaties, including those of cigarette manufacturers, must be respected and upheld. Any violation with regard to these agreements is serious, and before plain packaging is introduced, the government must obtain strong legal advice to ensure that any associated legislation is in full compliance with both of the above agreements.
• Unprecedented intervention.
The second area of concern relates to questions about the extent to which governments should intervene in standard commercial practices.
Cigarettes are a consumer product, and governments are right to intervene in some aspects of their packaging – mandatory inclusions about health warnings being a prime example.
But government intervention in packaging design is unprecedented. Labour’s plan to meddle in this area does raise questions about the freedom of companies to package merchandise using the design of their choice and whether or not government prescription of specific packaging design is going too far.
Close call. I support plain packaging, but with reservations.