Plain-Packaging Debate Advances

World Trade Organization report sets ominous tone for tobacco manufacturers and other categories

GENEVA -- Retailers following so-called “plain packaging” laws for tobacco products may have something to fear with the recent release of a report from an international agency that essentially supports such laws, which were first set in Australia.

Australia introduced its plain-packaging laws in 2012, forcing tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes in drab, olive-color packaging with no branding beyond the manufacturer’s name in small print and with large, graphic health warnings on most of its surface area. In reaction, countries such as Cuba, Indonesia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming Australia was infringing on international free-trade agreements and intellectual property rights.

In the report released June 28, the Geneva-based WTO essentially dismissed the claims, according to Fortune.

With its report, the WTO is essentially allowing Australia’s rule to stand, which also affirms similar laws already established in the U.K., Ireland, Hungary, Norway and New Zealand. Fortune said a ripple effect could bring similar plain-package rules to sugary foods and alcohol.

Last fall, tobacco manufacturer JTI, Geneva, devoted a carnival-themed booth at the NACS Show in Chicago to the idea of a proliferation of plain-packaging laws. The point was that even though the laws were currently having an effect on tobacco, it could affect other products, such as energy drinks, alcohol and candy, changing the way such products are marketed.

“The consumer will pay a premium for brand names like Rolls-Royce, Coca-Cola or Pepsi,” said Bryan Jones, vice president of corporate development for the Americas region for JTI, in an education session at the 2017 NACS Show. “Yet we’ve seen taxation, health warnings and bans [on tobacco products], with the end of the slippery slope being plain packaging.”

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