Philip Morris leads plain packs battle in global trade arena

Bloomberg NewsAugust 23, 2013 

The war between the tobacco industry and anti-smoking forces is heating up as cigarette makers intensify efforts to use treaties to block labeling constraints.

Philip Morris International has pressed the United States for language that would make it tougher for countries in a proposed Pacific Rim trade pact to require plain packaging or other limits on company logos.

Australia’s packaging law is being challenged at the World Trade Organization. And U.S. senators from tobacco-growing states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently warned the European Union that smoking controls it’s considering could endanger a U.S. trade deal.

Cigarette makers defend the efforts as necessary to safeguard the intellectual property protections embedded in treaties. To anti-smoking forces, the tobacco lobby is working a strategy of intimidation.

“They are in this to convince governments it’s not worth the cost” to enact laws to reduce tobacco’s appeal, said Chris Bostic, deputy director for policy at Action on Smoking and Health, a Washington-based nonprofit. “It’s about chilling countries from moving forward.”

Britain recently postponed instituting strict cigarette- pack mandates so it could assess Australia’s law.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, being negotiated by Australia, the U.S., Japan, Chile and eight other nations, will be a test of sovereign states’ freedom to regulate tobacco, said Gary Fooks, a University of Bath research fellow who has written about the industry’s efforts to influence the pact. The next round of talks is to begin Friday in Brunei.

Anti-smoking activists were encouraged last year when the Obama administration wrote a draft proposal to strengthen protections for anti-smoking regulations from challenges. It would have created “a safe harbor” for U.S. Food and Drug Administration tobacco rules, according to a government summary of the draft.

The safe harbor proposal died last week after running into opposition from lawmakers, former trade representatives and business groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association. They contended it would set a bad precedent that could lead to other products being singled out in trade pacts.

Proposal deepens divide

Instead, the U.S. will ask for a clause requiring that before a case against a tobacco regulation can be filed under the treaty, health authorities of the countries involved must “discuss the measure.” U.S. negotiators also will ask for a provision affirming that tobacco control initiatives are covered by a general exception, typical in trade agreements, that allows countries to enact measures necessary to protect human health.

“This proposal will, for the first time in a trade agreement, address specifically the public health issues surrounding tobacco,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in a statement, and won’t “create a precedent for excluding agricultural products.”

Anti-smoking activists characterized the new proposal as a retreat. It simply “states the obvious,” according to an Aug. 16 statement from five nonprofits, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Lung Association.

“It’s hard for me to see that it makes any difference at all,” said Gregg Haifley, associate director of federal relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Companies intensify fight

Companies including New York-based Philip Morris International, which sells Marlboro outside the U.S., and British American Tobacco Plc, whose brands include Dunhill and Lucky Strike, are in a global battle against moves to curtail branding and make cigarettes unappealing.

The $756 billion industry isn’t focusing only on trade deals. Japan Tobacco Inc. in June sued Thailand in its courts over a plan to order that health warnings cover 85 percent of a pack cover. In the U.S., five companies successfully sued the FDA to block a plan to require that packs to show a graphic image of cigarettes’ effects, such as a photo of a smoke drifting out of tracheotomy hole or chest staples on a cadaver.

While the industry says it supports evidence-based regulations that are effective in reducing harm from smoking, companies have made it clear they’ll go after laws such as Australia’s, which requires cigarettes be sold in uniform drab brown packs and limits the size of brand names.

“These policies do not meet the minimum standards that there will be a clear benefit to public health, and at the same time risk fueling the black market,” said Julie Soderlund, Philip Morris’ vice president of communications.

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