Big tobacco plainly lying about plain packaging ― Mary Assunta

29 February 2016

FEBRUARY 29 ― I wish to respond to the reports in the Malay Mail  Online on plain packaging of tobacco.

The logical next step for tobacco control in Malaysia is plain packaging. The Ministry of Health’s recent announcement to introduce plain packaging of cigarettes is most welcome.

Plain packaging of tobacco is effective in reducing smoking, which explains why the tobacco industry has come out swiftly to express its opposition.

The Confederation of Malaysian Tobacco Manufactures (CMTM) makes several predictable claims against plain packaging which are nothing more than scaremongering and same old disproved arguments the industry has used elsewhere. These arguments have been tried and defeated in other countries where plain packaging laws have already been adopted.

CMTM’s misleading claims that generic packaging of cigarette packs is a ‘violation of international treaties’ and will have ‘far reaching implications on the use of trademarks and intellectual property rights in other industries’, have already been dismissed by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

It is good that MITI has clarified that it is the government’s right to impose regulations to protect public health. This should serve as a warning to the industry not to mislead the government nor the public.

In essence, plain packaging of tobacco is just an extension of the near comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion that already exists in Malaysia. The colourful and attractive branding used on cigarette packs is another form of advertising for the product.

When Australia introduced plain packaging in 2012, the tobacco companies filed a constitutional legal challenge but they lost. In fighting the claim, Japan Tobacco International explicitly described a tobacco pack as “our billboard”. Hence, just as tobacco advertising on billboards is banned, it should also be banned on cigarette packaging.

Every year, tobacco companies launch new pack designs that obscure the current pictorial health warnings on packs. They advertise these new packs in special display counters through the 80,000 retail outlets in the country. The display-counters form a power wall of cigarette advertisements thereby undermining the ban on tobacco advertising and promotion that came into force since 2004.

Teenage girls are targeted with lipstick-like cigarette packs, and the health warnings on these packs are distorted because of its irregular shape. Standardised packaging will fix this weakness.

There are five times more teenage girls smoking compared to adult female smokers. Clearly the government needs to do more to curb increasing smoking prevalence among minors and vulnerable groups. Standardised packaging is the way to go.

CMTM erroneously claims that plain packaging is ‘an extreme and unproven measure’. Since Australia introduced plain packaging in 2012, it has seen the largest decline in smoking rates and now has among the lowest smoking prevalence in the world. There was also a significant decrease between 2011 and 2014 in the proportion of 12 to 17 year-olds who were smokers (from 7 per cent down to 5 per cent).

When Australia was preparing its plain packaging laws, retailers launched an aggressive campaign opposing the law claiming they will face operational problems, have difficulty differentiating between the legal and illicit cigarettes and that this will worsen the smuggling problem.  The Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association is quoting from the same industry script in Malaysia, but it is unsubstantiated.

Japan Tobacco International in pushing the argument that “plain packaging will worsen tobacco smuggling” has exaggerated the illicit trade statistics in Malaysia.

Australia’s latest official report shows JTI’s claim is not true.

According to Australia’s ‘Post-Implementation Review: Tobacco Plain Packaging 2016’ there is no change in smokers’ reported use of illicit tobacco, no evidence of increases in use of contraband cigarettes, and no increase in purchases of tobacco from informal sellers.

Philip Morris caused international outrage in 2011 by challenging Australia’s plain packaging laws under its Bilateral Investment Treaty with Hong Kong. The arbitration tribunal threw the case out in December 2015 and there have been no further challenges under international investment treaties against Australia or any of the other countries that have adopted plain packaging laws such as Ireland, the UK and France.

While the tobacco industry conducts scaremongering in Malaysia, two weeks ago, Philip Morris International at a business platform in New York was upbeat about its business and claimed that plain packaging will not have any material impact on total consumption of their cigarettes and that the commercial impact is actually manageable.

We fully support the Malaysian government to move forward with plain packaging and not get distracted by scare tactics hurled at it. The industry must stop spreading misleading and false information, and as pointed out by MITI, let the government do its job to protect public health. 

* Mary Assunta is the Senior Policy Advisor of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA)

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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