Government must resist lobbying over tobacco branding

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 01:00

Australia, less than a year ago, became the first country to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes. It did so to reduce the number of deaths from smoking-related diseases, and to improve public health. The Australian government in legislating for this major change withstood strong opposition from the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies have argued that the plain packaging requirement greatly reduces the brand appeal of their products, by making it harder for smokers to distinguish between different cigarette brands. And they have also claimed that such legislation infringes their intellectual property rights.

Both Ireland and Britain are now likely to follow the Australian lead. Last November the Government approved legislation, currently being drafted, to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes. In Britain, prime minister David Cameron now favours reform. And last week, a review commissioned by the UK government concluded that unbranded packs could reduce the number of children starting to smoke.

Ireland has an impressive record in tackling the challenge that smoking-related illnesses present, where it is estimated one in every two smokers will die from such an illness. In 2004, Ireland set the world an example when it became the first country to ban smoking in workplaces. Many public health benefits accruing from the smoking ban are well documented.

The Government move to legislate for plain packaging of cigarettes has met with concerted opposition from the tobacco lobby. Last June, the world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris, warned the Government of the likely legal consequences, should it proceed as proposed. If it went ahead, and failed to compensate the tobacco companies then, the company suggested, litigation was likely to follow and, it predicted, Irish and European courts would strike down the legislation. The Government, given its subsequent determination to proceed, has dismissed that warning.

The tobacco lobby has now mobilised a more broadly based coalition of US business interests and put renewed pressure on the Government. Some days before Taoiseach, Enda Kenny’s trip to the US for St Patrick’s Day, no fewer than six lobbies, representing many major American corporations, were signatories to a letter urging him “ to avoid precipitous action that could convey an unintended and adverse message to Irish companies and foreign investors”. Their primary concern, they insisted, was the protection of intellectual property rights – which they saw as one of the key objectives of the EU and US talks on a free trade deal – but which they felt the Government was ignoring with its proposed plain packaging legislation. With the British Government clearly intent on changing the tobacco law, Dublin should also resist US lobbying pressure.