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Philip Morris Leads Plain Packs Battle in Global Trade Arena

The war between the tobacco industry and anti-smoking forces is heating up as cigarette makers intensify efforts to use treaties to block labeling constraints.

Philip Morris International Inc. (PM) has pressed the U.S. for language that would make it tougher for countries in a proposed Pacific Rim trade pact to require plain packaging or other limits on company logos. Australia’s packaging law is being challenged at the World Trade Organization, and U.S. senators from tobacco-growing states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently warned the European Union that smoking controls it’s considering could endanger a U.S. trade deal.

The number of smokers increased about 7 percent to at least 869 million because of population growth, particularly in developing regions with relatively lax anti-smoking regulations, said Shane MacGuill, a Euromonitor tobacco analyst in London. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Packs of Philip Morris International Inc. cigarettes in plain-packaging are displayed for a photograph in a store in Melbourne, Australia. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Cigarette makers defend the efforts as necessary to safeguard the intellectual property protections embedded in treaties. To anti-smoking forces, the tobacco lobby is working a strategy of intimidation.

“They are in this to convince governments it’s not worth the cost” to enact laws to reduce tobacco’s appeal, said Chris Bostic, deputy director for policy at Action on Smoking and Health, a Washington-based nonprofit. “It’s about chilling countries from moving forward.”

The U.K. recently postponed instituting strict cigarette-pack mandates so it could assess Australia’s law.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by Australia, the U.S., Japan, Chile and eight other nations will be a test of sovereign states’ freedom to regulate tobacco, said Gary Fooks, a University of Bath research fellow who has writtenabout the industry’s efforts to influence the pact. The next round of talks is scheduled to begin tomorrow in Brunei.

Safe Harbor

Anti-smoking activists were encouraged last year when the Obama administration wrote a draft proposal to strengthen protections for anti-smoking regulations from challenges. It would have created “a safe harbor” for U.S. Food and Drug Administration tobacco rules, according to a government summary of the draft.

The safe harbor proposal died last week after running into opposition from lawmakers, former trade representatives and business groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association. They contended it would set a bad precedent that could lead to other products being singled out in trade pacts.

Instead, the U.S. will ask for a clause requiring that before a case against a tobacco regulation can be filed under the treaty, health authorities of the countries involved must “discuss the measure.” U.S. negotiators will also ask for a provision affirming that tobacco control initiatives are covered by a general exception, typical in trade agreements, that allows countries to enact measures necessary to protect human health.

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