Must cigarette packaging be bland and indistinct? British High Court says yes

The British High Court ruled in favor of regulations requiring plain packaging for tobacco products, a significant ruling that will likely ripple across Europe and the world as governments try to regulate tobacco.  

Michaela Rehle/Reuters/File
Pall Mall cigarettes are seen after the manufacturing process in the British American Tobacco Cigarette Factory (BAT) in Bayreuth, southern Germany. After Friday, the British High Court ruled, the government can require tobacco companies to use plain packaging on their products.

One of Britain's last marketing avenues for tobacco is closing, as a court upheld rules that make cigarette cartons a uniform olive green, without creative fonts or even logos on cigarette cartons, the BBC reported.

Australia was the first government to require plain packaging for cigarettes and then to see the fight through the courts. But the British court decision could reach further than Britain and embolden smaller countries that have been too afraid of court costs to try before, says Timothy Mackey, a professor specializing in health law at the University of California San Diego.

"Because Australia was successful the UK was successful, and because the UK was successful the EU can be successful, and because of this whole cascading impact, you see a lot of countries going above and beyond what is required by the WHO," Dr. Mackey told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The world's four largest tobacco companies said the British government's strict rules would make the cartons impossible to distinguish from one another and destroy their intellectual property rights. The court rejected the argument that creative packaging was an intellectual property right, instead choosing to uphold the government tobacco regulations as "moral," Reuters reported.

"It is wrong to view this issue purely in monetized terms alone," Britain's High Court wrote in its decision. "There is a significant moral angle which is embedded in the regulations which is about saving children from a lifetime of addiction, and children and adults from premature death and related suffering and disease."

The trademark law tobacco companies were using to argue their case is designed to protect companies from theft of their creative work, not from government regulations, says Stanton Glantz of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.  

"[Tobacco companies'] last stand on the issue has really been in the courts because they've lost on the science, they've lost on politics, and they're really trying to shift the debate into the courts," Dr. Glantz told The Christian Science Monitor.

Plain packaging is one of the newest ways governments are trying to prevent children and young adults from starting to use tobacco.

"Tobacco companies really do use the pack as an integral part of their marketing. It's almost like having a badge, you've affiliated with the brand," Glantz says. "So things that disrupt that, particularly when you're talking about kids and making it less desirable for them, are going to reduce initiation." 

At least two of the cigarette companies plan to appeal the ruling, but the requirement for plain packaging takes effect in Britain and the European Union on Friday, Reuters reported. 

Although the tobacco companies argued that the ruling would open a case for extreme restrictions on other products such as sugary drinks, Mackey says no other product has enough scientific weight against it.

"Tobacco is a very unique product," Mackey says. "It makes it a lot easier to make a moral argument."

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