Australia proposes tough cigarette warnings

Tobacco companies in Australia will be forced to strip all logos from their cigarette packages and replace them with graphic images such as cancer-riddled mouths.
In this computer-generated image provided by the Minister for Health and Aging of Australia, proposed cigarette packaging are stripped of all logos and replaced with graphic images. (Minister for Health and Aging/Associated Press)

Tobacco companies in Australia will be forced to strip all logos from their cigarette packages and replace them with graphic images such as cancer-riddled mouths and sickly children under legislation unveiled Thursday.

The government says the move will make Australia the world's toughest country on tobacco advertising.

The law would remove one of the tobacco companies' last methods of advertising by banning them from printing their logos, promotional text or colorful images on cigarette packs. Instead, brand names will be printed in a small, uniform font, and the packets will be a dull olive green — a colour the government believes consumers will hate.

"This plain packaging legislation is a world first and sends a clear message that the glamour is gone — cigarette packs will now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking," Health Minister Nicola Roxon said in a statement.

"The new packs have been designed to have the lowest appeal to smokers and to make clear the terrible effects that smoking can have on your health."

Tobacco companies have been fighting the legislation and threatening legal action since the government first announced its plan last year. The law would be phased in over six months, starting in January 2012.

The legality of the measure and whether it violates trademark laws is a matter of debate among experts. British American Tobacco, which produces several cigarette brands including Winfield, Dunhill and Benson, will probably launch legal action against the government over the legislation, spokesman Scott McIntyre said.

"What company would stand for having its brands, which are worth billions, taken away from them?" McIntyre said. "A large brewing company or fast food chain certainly wouldn't and we're no different."

Packaging draws young people

Smoking rates have been declining in Australia for years, but the government says cigarettes still kill 15,000 Australians a year and cost the country about $31.5 billion annually.

Tobacco advertising on billboards and in magazines has long been banned and restrictions on smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars, are common.

Public health advocates said the move to strip packages of their enticing images goes one critical step further, and will have a particularly big impact on children.

"Our research shows that the look of the pack is an important consideration for young people at risk of being drawn to smoking," Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, said in a statement.

"So this move by the Australian government has the potential to be one of the most significant public health measures in recent history."

Other countries, such as Britain and Canada, have considered packaging restrictions in the past, but none of the measures has passed, in part because of legal questions.

The government is required under the constitution to pay compensation to anyone from whom it takes or devalues property, including intellectual property such as trademarks. But opinions are split on what the implications of those rules, and international trade laws, are in the case of cigarette packages.

Matthew Rimmer, a legal expert at The Australian National University, said the government is fully within its power to regulate the packaging of tobacco products.

"Trademarks are a government grant and governments always retain the capacity to regulate that grant," said Rimmer, who wrote a paper urging plain packaging of cigarettes in 2008. "So historically they've always had the provisions, for instance, to ban trademarks on certain things that are contrary to law."

Tim Wilson, an intellectual property and free trade expert at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia, disagrees, saying the measure would violate international trademark and intellectual property regulations. Stripping the tobacco companies' logos from packaging diminishes the value of their trademarks, which is against the law, he said.

Threats of legal action from the tobacco industry will do nothing to dissuade the government from moving forward with the plan, said Roxon, the health minister.

"We believe we are on very strong legal grounds," she told journalists in Sydney. "We're not going to have 'big tobacco' scaring us with legal action. We want to make sure that the glamour that might have been attached to smoking in the past is dead and gone."

In December 2010, Ottawa introduced new rules for graphic warning labels on cigarettes.