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Tobacco giants start legal challenge against plain packaging in UK

They argue measure infringes human and intellectual property rights

Caroline White

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Four tobacco giants begin their legal challenge in the High Court today to block plans to introduce plain packaging in the UK from next May.

The big four—British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Limited, Japan Tobacco International, and Philip Morris International—are challenging the UK government and asking the court to rule that the regulations bringing in standardised packaging are unlawful.

In January this year, after a series of U-turns and delays, the UK government finally announced that it would proceed with plain packaging legislation.

Both the regulations and the Children and Families Act, which gave the health secretary the power to regulate pack design, were passed by overwhelming majorities on free votes in both the Commons and the Lords earlier this year.

On 11 March this year, 367 MPs voted in favour of the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015, with just 113 against. In the House of Lords the regulations passed without a division on 16 March.

The regulations stipulate that all cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco will have to be manufactured in plain standard packs from May 2016.

The tobacco companies claim that the regulations infringe their human rights and intellectual property rights.

According to the University of Bath Tobacco Control Group, lawyers for the companies have drawn on legal opinion Phillip Morris International commissioned from Lord Hoffman, the former senior Appeal Court judge. This concluded that banning the use of branding on cigarette packaging altogether could be a breach of trademark law, and that rejecting a company’s right to use an internationally recognised trademark in the UK could be in breach of the principle of free movement of goods within the European Union.

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain pack legislation in 2012, but more countries look set to follow suit.

Last week, the French National Assembly voted in favour of standardised packaging, and the Irish Dail passed standard packs legislation in March this year. Norway, Canada, and South Africa are also planning to introduce the measure.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of health charity ASH, which will be giving evidence during the trial, commented: “This is a desperate last ditch move by the tobacco companies to try to protect their right to promote their products in glitzy brightly coloured packaging, hoping that they will attract to children and young people to become the next generation addicted to smoking.”

Ms Arnott added that the cost and complexities of these cases could deter poorer countries from opting for plain packaging.

“We expect the industry to lose. But of course, they still hope that by tying up government officials and the court system for as long as they can, and by making the case as complicated and expensive as possible, they might put off governments in poorer countries than the UK from following our example,” she said.

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