How will plain packaging tobacco products affect Ireland?

Australia has led the way in introducing a plain packaging law and its courts have upheld the measure. A case is underway under the World Trade Organisation dispute resolution system.

One of the main arguments, made both by the tobacco industry and the Law Society, against plain packaging is that such laws may breach international treaties on intellectual property. The Australians have already been down this road, so it is worth looking at their experience and commentary.

A detailed rejection of the argument that plain packaging laws contravene international (TRIPS and Paris Convention) obligations by Mark Davison (IP professor, Monash University):

“No right of use exists under either Paris or TRIPS and … Article 20 of TRIPS has [a very limited role] in the context of the debate surrounding the legislation.”

Matthew Rimmer, associate Professor in Intellectual Property at Australian National University, writing in the magazine of the World Intellectual Property Organization:

“An important theme of the Australian ruling which upheld their plain packaging law, concerned the nature and role of IP law. The judgments stressed that IP law is designed to serve public policy objectives – not merely the private interests of rights holders.”

Following the introduction of the plain packaging law, Australia dropped a rank in the Global Intellectual Property Center International IP Index – from fourth place internationally, to fifth. That ranking has itself been criticised by IP experts. It is notable that, in the context of the Law Society fearing that a plain packaging law would damage our international standing, Ireland does not feature at all in the GIPC index. According to Mark Summerfield:

In a number of places the GIPC somewhat disingenuously neglects to mention that the restrictions are limited to tobacco products. For example, in its summary of key findings, under the heading “Moving Backwards”, it contends that “Australia’s plain packaging requirements severely limit the ability of trademark owners to exploit their rights, and send a chilling message to brand owners interested in selling in the Australian market”, as well as making a point of the fact that “In 2013, five countries brought action against Australia in the WTO on the basis that the new law violates Australia’s WTO commitments.”

As far as the contribution to the index is concerned, Australia scores zero, out of a possible one point, in the category of ‘non-discrimination/non-restrictions on the use of brands in packaging of different products.’

That’s right, a total fail, on the basis of a restriction which applies to just one category of products, which is applied for the purpose of furthering public health policy.

The tobacco industry and the Law Society are also greatly concerned about counterfeiting. The Law Society submission stated:

“Plain packaging can only lead to an increase in counterfeit activity … The lack of distinguishing features on plain packaging will make it significantly easier to produce counterfeit tobacco products.”

At the hearing of the Joint Committee, the Law Society effectively abandoned this point after representatives of An Garda Síochána and the Revenue Commissioners gave evidence that they did not expect to have to deal with an increase in counterfeiting activity on foot of a plain packaging law. According to Cancer Research UK, the argument does not hold water.

The least one can say is that the tobacco industry is very inconsistent in their main argument that plain packs will be easy to copy. On the one hand they claim that plain packs are easy to counterfeit, on the other they insist that counterfeiters already copy all paper-based material at short notice, even the most sophisticated tax stamps. The reality is that all packs are easy to counterfeit and that plain packaging will not make any difference.

An argument is also put forward that there is no evidence that a plain packaging law would be effective in reducing smoking. This argument is highlighted by the industry and the Law Society on the basis that, in the absence of such evidence, a plain packaging law may be unjustifiable and disproportionate. Many are somewhat confused as to the points made in the written submissions and those made at the Joint Committee hearing regarding justifiability and proportionality and those elements appear to have been conflated in relation to intellectual property law and constitutional law. Nevertheless, the argument seems weak in an Irish context and at least in relation to the Constittuion, one Irish intellectual property expert has concluded that “On balance, plain packaging legislation is unlikely to be struck down on Irish constitutional property grounds”.

The tobacco industry commissioned its own research which, unsurprisingly, is inconclusive as to whether or not plain packaging laws have any effect on smoking rates. There appears to have been a reduction in smoking since the law was introduced in Australia, but the industry says that reduction in not statistically significant. Of course, the Australian law is still relatively new so the most that can be said is that it is too soon to say. Thankfully, the Australian media have fact-checked the industry’s claims. It certainly seems that the law has had an immediate impact:

Calls to the NSW Quitline increased by 78 per cent in the four weeks after the world-leading move in October 2012 before starting to taper off. ”Our study demonstrates real behaviour change following the introduction of plain packaging,” said lead author University of Sydney Professor Jane Young. The response was more immediate and lasted longer than the 2006 introduction of graphic health warnings, said Prof Young, who is also scientific director at the Cancer Institute NSW.

Australia is the only country to have introduced a plain packaging law to date, and it has done so very recently. Therefore the evidence of the practical effects of such a law is not yet available and conclusions on the legal position of such a law remain to be tested. As things stand, it is clearly an area in which there is a significant level of debate and certainly very strong and convincing arguments against the position of the tobacco industry in relation to intellectual property law.

Either way you look at it, this case is a complicated one. Australians are still having a strong debate over the effectiveness and viability of plain packaging laws. Even though many argue that the proposed law will not see a decrease in smoking, the number of people trying to quit after the packaging ban was introduced in Australia, suggests otherwise. One can only conclude that even if the measure sees only a 1% drop in tobacco consumption, then surely it is a step worth taking.

Retailers however, stand to suffer greatly if smoking levels plummet so the tax benefits associated with the smoking levels in this country will surely be taken into account before anything is passed in the Dail.

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