Tim Lince

The New Zealand government is reportedly “pressing ahead” with plain packaging on tobacco products. The move will see the country join Australia, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom in introducing legislation that would remove trademarks from tobacco packaging. As momentum for plain packaging continues to grow, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed a new plain packaging PR push to coincide with World No Tobacco Day on May 31.

The New Zealand government initially introduced a plain packaging bill last year, but put it on pause as it awaited the result of tobacco giant Philip Morris’ legal challenge against Australia’s plain packaging legislation. Philip Morris failed in this latest legal bid in December, with a WTO challenge still to be decided. However, last week New Zealand’s prime minister stated that he would be resuming the bill, which is currently at the early select committee stage, “sooner as opposed to later” and hinted that it could become law “by the end of the year”. He explained: “Late last year I asked for advice on that matter, and the advice I got back was that they felt we were on very firm ground and didn't feel there was really any issues. A number of other countries have moved on plain packaging and were doing so without court cases being brought against them. We're feeling a lot more confident about that; the bill's now progressing through and it is my expectation that it will become law at some point.”

As noted, the world continues to wait for the World Trade Organisation’s decision over challenges to Australia's plain packaging regime. This is the most significant challenge to plain packaging and could yet determine just how quickly other countries adopt any related legislation.

In the meantime, the World Health Organisation has stepped up its support for plain packaging, announcing that, to mark World No Tobacco Day on May 31, it will “call on all countries to get ready for plain (standardised) packaging of tobacco products”. The key targets for the May 31 awareness push, the statement says, is to promote plain packaging as a positive step in tobacco control; facilitate policy development and globalisation of plain packaging by member states; and to support civil society against tobacco industry interference in the political processes leading up to the adoption of plain packaging laws.

To coincide with the programme, the WHO has launched a web portal entitled “World No Tobacco Day 2016: Get ready for plain packaging”. It includes positive case studies on Australia’s experience since implementing the law and also examples of cigarette plain packaging.  

Critics of plain packaging will, of course, point to studies that have found that plain packaging has not had an adverse impact on smoking habits and highlight the negatives of the regime. Interestingly, a significant figure in the packaging industry has argued that plain packaging is not an immediate concern. The chief executive of Australian packaging giant Amcor, Ron Delia, told Fairfax Media last week that the global implementation of plain packaging remains “slow” and will have little effect on its core business. In fact, the company posted healthy financial results for 2015, and there were suggestions that this was down to the “strength in its tobacco division” and Europeans “stock-piling cigarettes ahead of changes to packaging and tax laws”. Delia added: “We don't see the majority of the countries we operate in heading in that direction anytime soon. Importantly, the European Commission has not adopted it as their standard in this latest set of directives.“

It seems though, with the UK and Ireland’s laws coming into effect in May and Canada and New Zealand drawing up their plans, that the WHO is confident that the ‘plain packaging dominoes’ will continue to fall  and that a major awareness push could be the encouragement a number of other countries need to pass legislation as well. The only obstacle that could slow it down now is a WTO ruling against the regime. 

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