Tim Lince

UK MPs have voted to approve legislation for plain packaging on tobacco products, just a day after Ireland’s president signed plain packaging legislation into law. With a range of other countries currently proposing its introduction in the imminent future, one commentator told WTR that momentum is now behind plain packaging.

The vote in the House of Commons today, held without a debate, means the UK will likely be the third country to introduce tobacco plain packaging, following Australia’s introduction of the law in 2012 and Ireland’s legislation (due to come into force in May 2016). The vote count was 367 for the plain packaging legislation and 113 against it, and will move forward if the House of Lords also approves the move.

Plain packaging has been of concern to brand owners for a number of years. Critics say that it could lead to a ‘domino effect’ of other product lines being legislated (such as alcohol or pharmaceutical products), that plain packaging can have a detrimental effect on the ‘customer experience’ of a product (such as the taste), that it could lead to a boost to the illicit market (although new research questions this) and that government law restricting trademarks on packaging creates a dangerous precedent by limiting a consumer’s ability to differentiate between legal products. Additionally, the World Trade Organisation is yet to rule on legal objections to Australia's tobacco packaging regime.

Trademark associations, including INTA and MARQUES, have been vocal opponents of plain packaging and will be disappointed by both today’s development and its possible implications.

With respect to the latter, Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society and a global advocate of plain packaging, told World Trademark Review today that the UK’s approval of plain packaging is “a huge boost to international momentum on this issue, both within the European Union and worldwide”.

That momentum goes beyond the UK and Ireland’s approval of plain packaging. France announced in September last year that it “would implement plain packaging” and gave formal notice to the European Commission last week. Just last month, Norway commenced a consultation on tobacco plain packaging and Sweden announced a committee examining implementing plain packaging. Cunningham said today’s vote and the other recent developments suggest “plain packaging now has unstoppable momentum”, adding: “The plain packaging dominoes are starting to fall, despite strong opposition by the tobacco industry. Plain packaging is inevitable in far more countries, and from a health perspective is simply the right thing to do.”

Providing an alternative perspective, John Noble, director of the British Brands Group, told WTR today of his dismay that UK MPs passed the plain packaging legislation without enough due diligence on the IP implications: “It is disappointing and deeply regrettable that such a major intervention in the market, with such significant implications for brands and intellectual property, has not been scrutinised more fully. The evidence is controversial at best that it will achieve any of the stated goals and there are real fears that a counterfeiter’s charter will now be created.”

Whether the momentum is unstoppable, Noble concluded: “I hope that other countries will be led by the evidence to allow them to be confident that the policy goals will be achieved without wider, damaging consequences.”

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