By Brigit Toebes, University of Groningen, b.c.a.toebes(at)rug.nl
As inspired by Australia, several countries in Europe have adopted or are in the process of adopting plain packaging for tobacco products. While plain packaging has been introduced in the UK, France and Ireland, Norway is in the process of adopting it. Several other European countries, including Hungary, Finland, Slovenia, Belgium and Sweden are considering it.
Plain packaging requires the removal of all branding and permits manufacturers to print only the brand name in a mandated size, font and place on the package, in addition to the health warnings and any other legally mandated information such as toxic constituents and tax-paid stamps. The appearance of all tobacco packs is standardised, including the colour of the pack.
Research in Australia , which introduced plain packaging in 2012, demonstrates that plain packaging legislation is effective. There has been a reduction of smoking among 12-17 year olds, while adult smokers increasingly drop the habit (among other issues evidenced by the fact that there was a 78% increase in calls to the telephone quit line after the introduction of plain packaging). Overall, while younger people more influenced by reduced pack appeal, adults are more influenced by health warnings on the packages. Very positively, 40% of children in Australia had never seen a health package over the last six months, showing that the absence of attractive cigarette packages makes them less aware of what is on the market. Research also indicates that the introduction of plain packaging is not necessarily damaging the industry: it is not catastrophic for small business, nor does it lead to an increase in the sale of illicit tobacco, as is frequently claimed by the industry.
An important point to consider when introducing plain packaging is the length of the transition period, which is two months in Australia and one year in the UK. While on the one hand it is desirable for the measure to be implemented as quickly as possible, the industry may ask for time to implement it.
The new EU Tobacco Products Directive, which became applicable in EU Member States on 20 May 2016, implies that graphic health warnings with photos, text and cessation of information must cover 65% of the front and the back of cigarette and roll-your-own tobacco packs. The Directive allows EU Member States to go further by adopting more restrictive measures. In the UK, parliament voted last March in favour of regulations requiring all tobacco products to be sold in uniform green-brown packaging with large images designed to act as health warnings. These new regulations were immediately contested by four tobacco multinationals. In an elaborate judgment of the High Court of England and Whales, Judge Green rejected every single point by tobacco companies and was very critical about the lack of evidence produced by tobacco industry. It decided that the British plain packaging regulation is ‘proportional’ and does not undermine the trade mark of tobacco companies, inter alia because the name of the product may still appear on the pack.
Clearly, there is currently a movement towards the introduction of plain packaging legislation in Europe. In this development, the Netherlands is strikingly absent. It is important that Dutch politicians, law and policy makers pay more attention to the potential of plain packaging. Given the clear evidence in favour of plain packaging and the devastating effects of smoking, it is of crucial importance to make a move.
For a comprehensive overview of the discussion see also Clean Air Nederland.