Feb. 16, 2010

Battle Over U.K. Cigarette Packaging Gears Up

Tobacco companies are digging in to fight a possible U.K. ban on one of their last marketing tools: cigarette packaging.

The U.K.'s Department of Health said Monday that it would consider mandating generic packaging for all cigarettes as part of an aggressive campaign to halve smoking rates by 2020.

Such packs would be white or brown with the brand name written in simple type and no logos or colors allowed. The packs would continue to carry large health warnings.

In a report, health officials called colorful packaging the "silent salesman" for tobacco brands and said evidence suggests that without it, consumers could be more likely to note the health warnings and less likely to wrongly believe that some cigarettes are less harmful than others.Other countries, including Canada, have considered mandating plain packaging, but, amid heavy resistance from the tobacco industry, none has yet done so.

The U.K. said it would "carefully consider the case for plain packaging," including weighing "the legal implications of restrictions on packaging for intellectual property rights and freedom of trade."

The tobacco industry was quick to voice its intention to protect those rights on Monday. British American Tobacco issued a statement saying the U.K. would have "a huge fight on its hands" if it tried to ban current packaging.

"Brands are valuable corporate assets, and the government risks breaching various legal obligations relating to intellectual property rights, international trade and European law," the statement said.

An Imperial Tobacco Group PLC spokesman cited the company's long-standing position on plain packaging: that it would "expropriate valuable corporate assets in which the company and its shareholders have invested for more than a century" and possibly place "the U.K. government in breach of a range of legal and treaty obligations."

Philip Morris International Inc. and other cigarette makers argued that there is no evidence showing that plain packaging reduces smoking rates. A few weeks ago, a spokesman said, Philip Morris launched a Web site, www.plain-packaging.com, that is dedicated to fighting plain packaging. The site argues that generic packs "will create confusion, violate trademark rights and likely spur the growth of low price and illegal cigarettes without actually reducing smoking rates."

Health-policy experts scoffed at the idea that plain packaging wouldn't reduce smoking. "We have strong evidence that restrictions on other forms of marketing have helped reduce tobacco use, and there's no reason to think that would be any different for packaging," David Hammond, assistant professor of health studies at the University of Waterloo, said.

He said studies have shown that people are more likely to notice and believe health warnings when colorful packaging is stripped away. Other studies have shown that plain packaging makes the product less appealing to consumers, and particularly to children.

There is also evidence that removing colors from packages makes consumers less likely to wrongly believe that one type of cigarette is less harmful than another, he said.

Cigarette companies are no longer allowed to call certain brands "light" or "low tar" in many markets because such cigarettes are just as harmful as others, but consumers still associate the light, silvery colors long used on such brands with a healthier product, Mr. Hammond said.

To halve the nation's smoking rate to 10% of the population by 2020, the U.K. also plans to crack down on the sale of contraband cigarettes, which are often sold from private homes at discount prices; maintain or increase the "real value" of tobacco duties; ban vending-machine cigarette sales; and offer extra support through the state-run health system for people who want to quit.

The U.K. plan will also require cigarettes to be removed from in-store displays and be sold instead from under the counter.