Tobacco firms challenge plain packaging law

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Cigarettes on shelves in a shopImage source, Getty Images

Two of the world's biggest tobacco companies have challenged the legality of the UK government's plain packaging regulations.

British American Tobacco and Philip Morris filed legal objections at the High Court in London on Friday.

They claim that the new rules are illegal because they take away their trademark intellectual property.

The Department of Health has responded saying that it refuses to be "held to ransom by the tobacco industry".

If successful, the tobacco companies may secure huge payouts from the British government.

British American Tobacco and Philip Morris say that stopping them from using their trademarks goes against English and EU property law.

"Legal action is not something we wanted to have to consider and is not something we undertake lightly, but the UK government has left us with no other choice," said a British American Tobacco spokesperson.

"Any business that has property taken away from it by the state would inevitably want to challenge and seek compensation."

'Rushed out'

"We respect the government's authority to regulate in the public interest, but wiping out trademarks simply goes too far," said Marc Firestone, Philip Morris' senior vice-president and general counsel.

In their filings, both companies say that it violates EU law for a company to be able to use its trademark in Europe, but not the UK.

They also argue that the plain packaging law prevents the free movement of goods. According to Philip Morris, the UK's law should have been postponed until the European Court of Justice had reached its decision on the matter.

"The UK government rushed out the regulations, with many serious questions left unanswered," said Mr Firestone.

"We will not allow public health policy to be held to ransom by the tobacco industry," said a Department of Health spokesperson.

"Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of death in England, killing 80,000 people every year. We would not have gone ahead with standardised packaging unless we had considered it to be defensible in the courts," he continued.

Another company, Imperial Tobacco, said in March that it intended to challenge the law in the UK courts.

"No-one starts or continues to smoke because of the colour of the pack," said Axel Gietz, director of corporate affairs. "We would regrettably be left with no choice but to defend our legal rights in court."

It has not yet submitted a legal challenge, but "I think that you can assume that [Imperial Tobacco's action] will not be too far behind", said a spokesman.

Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which owns the Winston, Camel and Benson & Hedges brands, also intends to take the government to court.

"JTI strongly considers plain packaging is unlawful," said a spokesperson. "JTI therefore expects to challenge the legislation."

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