Trevor Little

This weekend it was reported that Indonesia is stepping up plans to introduce plain packaging for alcoholic products. Should the country press ahead with its plans, the prediction by IP associations that plain packaging will creep into other industry segments may be realised sooner than expected.

The Jakarta Post and Food Navigator Asia both report that the Indonesian government is considering regulation that would require beverages with an alcohol content in excess of 20% to either carry graphic health warnings or to use plain packaging.

The prospect of plain packaging for alcohol was first raised in May, when it was reported that Indonesia planned to require plain packaging for Australian wine in retaliation for Australia’s plain packaging tobacco regime (Indonesia being a significant exporter of tobacco – and one of the countries to challenge Australia’s plain packaging regime at the World Trade Organisation (WTO)). The reports sparked fears that other countries could also be impacted, for instance that Scotch whisky would be the focus of similar plain packaging requirements if the UK introduces plain packaging.

Speaking last month to Drinks Industry Ireland, Mike Ridgway, spokesman for the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance, said: “We've long feared that introducing plain packs for tobacco products would eventually lead to plain packaging in other sectors. It now looks like these fears could become reality sooner than anyone expected. Indonesia represents a market of nearly 250 million consumers and if they retaliate to plain pack cigarettes by adopting branding bans for alcohol it would affect all alcohol products sold to Indonesia from anywhere in the world.”

Arguing that its own plain packaging regime would be compliant with the WTO’s global trade requirements, it seems that Indonesia is indeed ready to step up its plans for alcoholic products - the Jakarta Post reporting that deputy trade minister Bayu Krisnamurthi told reporters on Friday: “We want people to be warned about the dangers of consuming alcoholic drinks. We see a lot of problems caused by the habit, including pertaining to health and crimes, among other things.”

Krisnamurthi’s comments suggest that the move is more about health concerns rather than political tit-for-tat. In Australia, though, the impact of the country’s plain packaging regime for tobacco products is being fiercely debated. On one side you have those who cite data suggesting that tobacco sales volumes are on the rise (with an extra 59 million sticks sold in the first 12 months under the new laws) as evidence that  - to quote a piece in The Australian - “Labor’s nanny state push to kill off the country’s addiction to cigarettes with plain packaging has backfired.” In contrast are those who counter that this interpretation of the data is flawed and that, while tobacco sales volumes have risen, once adjusted for population growth the figures actually represent a drop per capita. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Cancer Institute NSW’s David Currow cites “the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s figures, showing tobacco sales are at their lowest in history at $3.405 billion. [Additionally] It was reported this week that the Commonwealth Treasury’s tobacco clearances fell by 3.4 per cent in 2013 relative to 2012.”

The debate being played out in the Australian media is highly polarised and is unlikely to abate any time soon. However, it is worth following as the resulting perception in political circles on the effectiveness of plain packaging will likely impact on the willingness to extend the regime to other products.

To date, there hasn’t been a clamour to look beyond tobacco but Indonesia’s move could be a portent of things to come. Just last month, reacting to the news that Ireland’s government  had approved the publication and presentation to Parliament of the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Bill 2014, a joint statement issued by IP associations (including INTA, MARQUES, ECTA and ICC BASCAP) reiterated their concern that plain packaging will not be restricted to tobacco products, noting: “Already there have been suggestions that similar measures, as have been proposed for tobacco products, might be applied to alcoholic drinks and to other products that are considered unhealthy. To adopt any plain packaging requirements would be setting a precedent for other products.”

Following Indonesia’s stated intentions, the fear that plain packaging will creep into other industry segments may be realised sooner than expected. Ironically, if Indonesia’s move is indeed retaliation against plain packaging for tobacco products, the extension of plain packaging to other sectors will be the result of opposition to the concept plain packaging.

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