Tim Lince

The plain packaging juggernaut rumbles onwards, with recent announcements that Sri Lanka and Turkey plan to implement new legislation imminently. Indeed, a new study confirms that the World Health Organisation’s push for plain packaging is “gaining momentum around the globe” – but there has been criticism recently over the organisation’s lobbying priorities, including a campaign to introduce the measure in Syria.

The last few months have seen a wave of announcements about plain packaging. Gambia looks set to be the first African country to implement it, as it looks to bolster its award-winning anti-tobacco credentials. Both Malaysia and Thailand have voiced their intention to introduce plain packaging in the future, while legislation came into effect in Hungary in August. Furthermore, in the UK, where plain packaging was officially implemented in May (with a 12 month rollout period), there is an increasing number of reports of plain packs being spotted out in the wild (as well news of the closure of a printing works facility, claimed to be due to the new legislation).

Most recently, a regulation requiring cigarettes to be sold in uniform plain packaging was announced this week in Turkey; with a population of 74 million, it would become the largest country to make the move. There was another added to the ranks last week too, with Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena announcing at an event of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that the country’s “minister of health is proposing to introduce plain packaging, which is another important measure in the near future”.

These developments (and there is little doubt that more will follow before the end of the year) demonstrate that plain packaging on tobacco goods has moved way beyond Australia. Indeed, a new report released last week from the Canadian Cancer Society – entitled Cigarette Package Health Warnings: International Status Report – confirms the trend. It ranked 205 countries and territories based on the size of their health warnings on cigarette packages. In total, it revealed that 105 countries (accounting for 58% of the world's population) have implemented graphic picture warnings on cigarette packages, with 94 legislating that warnings must take up at least 50% of the front and back of the packaging. In terms of the size (and allowing no or miniscule branding), the largest warning requirements on tobacco products are in: Nepal (90%), Vanuatu (90%, effective in 2017), Thailand (85%), India (85%), Australia (82.5%), Sri Lanka (80%), Uruguay (80%), Brunei (75%), Canada (75%), Laos (75%) and Myanmar (75%). The United States is in last place, the report claims, with “minimal requirements for health warnings on either the front or back of the package”.

Regarding plain packaging specifically, the report confirms the current countries where it is already required (Australia, UK and France), and 14 countries that are actively working on legislation, namely: Belgium, Canada, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, Singapore, Slovenia, Uruguay, Thailand, Turkey, Finland, and South Africa. “Forcing tobacco companies to use plain packaging is gaining momentum across the globe,” concluded the report’s authors, urging other countries to follow suit.

This rise in plain packaging activity will no doubt be seen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a success. Nonetheless, the UN organisation has received criticism in recent months about the countries it is pushing to implement anti-tobacco measures. For example, it recently copped flak for a statement that “urges stronger tobacco control in Syria”, expanding: “Notwithstanding the current crisis in the country, Elizabeth Hoff, WHO Representative to Syria, has stressed the urgency for controlling tobacco and shisha consumption among the population. [...] Hoff urged the Syrian health authorities at all levels to collaborate with the WHO and implement the ‘plain packaging approach’ being canvassed in order to reduce attractiveness and glamour.”

A number of media and political figures were outraged that the WHO made such a statement regarding a country in the midst of a civil war (in which an estimated 280,000 people have died so far). Spectator columnist Christopher Snowdon claimed that it was “rather like telling passengers on the Titanic that ‘notwithstanding the iceberg’ they should collaborate with staff to tidy away the deckchairs”. Nigel Farage, the interim leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) who recently appeared on the US presidential campaign trail with Donald Trump, piped in too, telling The Sun: “These taxpayer funded international organisations have their priorities completely wrong. If I was living in Syria I would be more worried about the risks of Islamic State than a comforting cigarette.”

For its part, a WHO spokesperson responded to the criticism by saying: “Just because you have an emergency, it doesn’t mean everything else should stop – obviously people are being killed by bombs but tobacco is still killing people and they should not be forgotten.”

The next step will be the long-awaited decision of the World Trade Organisation on Australia’s decision to enforce standardised packaging on tobacco products, expected early next year. If Australia prevails, it could mean that momentum is unstoppable and may only be a matter of time before plain packaging becomes ‘the norm’ for tobacco products across the globe. In the meantime, the WHO should be more aware of how its global anti-tobacco push can be perceived in a wider context – and the trademark community should learn strategic lessons if they want to avoid other industry sectors facing the same IP restrictions.

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