GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization has urged countries to stand together against tobacco companies that are trying to “harass” them into softening their anti-smoking stance.
“Tobacco is the only industry that produces products to make huge profits and at the same time damage the health and kill their consumers,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told officials at a public health meeting in Geneva.
“How can we as an international community allow big tobacco to harass countries?” she asked. Chan said Australia, Uruguay, Norway and the United States were among the countries targeted by the tobacco industry over their measures to reduce smoking-related disease.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris launched legal action against Australia’s government Monday, hours after the country’s Parliament passed new legislation banning all logos from cigarette packages.
The legislation, which takes effect in December 2012, prohibits the use of logos and brand imagery on cigarette packages, instead requiring that brand names be printed in a small, uniform font on dull olive green packets. Cigarette packs will also include larger health warnings with graphic pictures of the negative health effects of smoking.
A spokeswoman for Philip Morris said the company had been forced to act because the anti-tobacco measures were illegal.
“The laws that we have challenged in Uruguay and Norway have not reduced smoking but contravene numerous laws and treaties,” said Anne Edwards, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris International, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“As concerns Australia, the government has been unable to demonstrate that plain packaging will be effective at reducing smoking and has ignored the widespread concerns raised in Australia and internationally regarding the serious legal issues associated with plain packaging,” Edwards said in a statement.
“Legal action is not something that we take lightly but in these exceptional circumstances we are unfortunately left with no option,” she added.
In the United States, tobacco companies have sued the Food and Drug Administration over requirements to feature graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking, saying the rules infringe their right to free speech.
Chan, a Chinese citizen from Hong Kong, has been a strong advocate of tighter tobacco control since taking office in 2007. She is the only candidate to lead the WHO for another five years when her first term ends next year.