ATA write to Singapore's Ministry of Health on the WTO plain packaging decision

Last month, the World Trade Organisation made public their decision to uphold Australia's world-first plain packaging laws for cigarettes. In doing so, they failed to consider extensive evidence that these laws have not reduced smoking, have encouraged the growth of the tobacco black market in our region, have failed in France and the UK as well as Australia, and set a terrible precedent for Intellectual Property rights in the global economy while prompting calls from nanny state lobbyists for plain packaging to be applied to alcohol and fast food.

ATA Director of Policy, Satya Marar, has previously written about the WTO decision and the plain packaging issue in The Daily Telegraph, Spectator Australia and the Swedish media. Earlier this month, he sent the following letter to Singapore's Ministry of Health which is currently considering the implementation of plain packaging laws similar to those we have in Australia. The text of the letter can be found below. 

To: Ministry of Health and Welfare - Government of Singapore

12 July 2018

To whom it may concern,

I write to you on behalf of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, a 75,000+ member grassroots public advocacy group that stands for individual freedom, minimising government waste and rolling back the nanny state to ensure Australia’s prosperity.

We write to you in response to Singapore’s consideration of a plain packaging initiative. We have already provided comments and evidence to the Singaporean Ministry of Health’s inquiry on this matter but write to provide further comments in light of the recent decision on Australia’s plain packaging laws by the World Trade Organisation as well as new evidence which has emerged from Australia, France and the UK on the outcomes of the laws.

We call on the Singapore Government to closely study and consult further on the evidence emerging from Australia[1], France and the UK[2] that confirms that plain packaging has not mitigated smoking prevalence. Data from France shows that tobacco consumption has actually increased since the laws came into effect last year.[3] After Australia implemented plain packaging, illegal tobacco sales went up by 30%. The black market in tobacco is now estimated to account for 15% of the total market – the country’s highest level on record.[4] Official data released by the Australian government shows that the long-term decline in smoking prevalence prior to the introduction of plain packaging in late 2012, has since stalled. The Australian government’s own independent reviewer conceded that the effects of plain packaging on reducing visual appeal could not be isolated from graphic health warnings of diseased and cancer-riddled human bodies and organs on Australian cigarette packets which were introduced 6 years prior to plain packaging (2006).[5]

Singapore prides itself on protecting IP rights. Yet, if plain packaging is adopted, it will substantially diminish the fundamental legal rights of one industry, setting a dangerous precedent for the potential loss of IP rights for other industries. From a public health standpoint, the abrogation of intellectual property rights and commercial uncertainty this will create cannot be justified as the evidence from 3 countries experimenting with the laws demonstrates their ineffectiveness in targeting the issue of smoking prevalence. Reputable IP organizations and a large number of countries remain convinced that plain packaging is an ineffective policy to pursue. We call on the Singapore Government to consider the many unintended and negative consequences this policy has such as an increase in illegal trade and an irrefutable infringement of IP rights, regardless of the recent decision by the WTO panel.

Plain packaging’s impact on the illegal tobacco market arises from the difficulties it creates for consumers who struggle to differentiate between generic, unbranded legal packs and illegal cigarettes. The illegal tobacco trade in the Asia-Pacific region has been found to fund organized crime and terrorist activities in both Singapore and Australia. The experience from Australia and the UK shows that plain packaging has provided many opportunities to criminals whose contraband and counterfeit products are more easily able to adapt the generic aesthetic of their legal counterparts.

The WTO’s decision in favour of Australia is a major step backwards for the protection of intellectual property rights internationally. Ultimately however, it applies only to Australia and does not decide on the legality of plain packaging in other jurisdictions. It is likely to be appealed and the Appellate Body could reverse the Panel’s findings in light of emerging evidence which was not considered by the previous panel about the ineffective outcomes of plain packaging. Notwithstanding the WTO Panel report, plain packaging continues infringe intellectual property rights and deprive businesses from their brands. We urge the Ministry of Health and the Singaporean government to avoid implementing laws which contravene IP rights, do not achieve public health outcomes and help line the pockets of criminal and terrorist enterprises.

Yours sincerely,

Satyajeet Marar

Director of Policy

Australian Taxpayers' Alliance

________________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] In Australia, which introduced plain packaging in December 2012, latest Government data shows that the long-term decline in smoking rates has now stagnated: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/illicit-use-of-drugs/ndshs-2016-key-findings/contents/highlights-from-the-2016-survey 

[2] “TPD2 and standardized tobacco packaging – What impacts have they had so far?”, Europe Economics, May 2018:  http://www.europe-economics.com/publications/tpd2_and_standardised_tobacco_packaging_may_2018.pdf   – Data on England’s smoking rates, considered as representative for the UK.

[3] In France, the second country to implement plain packaging four months prior to the UK, Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn admitted that plain packaging doesn’t stop people from smoking and that she was against it from the outset: http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/15/cri/2017-2018/20180075.asp#P1117763

Data published by the French Observatory for Drugs and Addiction shows that one full year after the implementation of the policy, tobacco products shipped to retailers (cigarettes and RYO/MYO) were broadly stable in France, with only a slight move of -0.7% in volume, following a 1.3% increase in sales during the first half of the year: https://www.ofdt.fr/ofdt/fr/tt171225.pdf

[4] https://assets.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/uk/pdf/2018/05/australia_illicit_tobacco_report_2017.pdf 

[5]https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/491CE0444F7B0A76CA257FBE00195BF3/%24File/PIR%20of%20Tobacco%20Plain%20Packaging%20-%20with%20Addendum.docx

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