UK

Tobacco firms challenge plain packaging rules

Cigarettes Image copyright PA

Four of the world's biggest tobacco firms have begun a legal challenge to the government's new packaging rules.

The regulations will ban companies from using any logos or branding on packets of tobacco products from May 2016.

Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International say it will unlawfully take away their trademark intellectual property.

The government argues the measure will discourage more people from smoking.

Under the new "standardised packaging" regulations, any part of tobacco packaging not covered by the health warning carried on it must be a dark brown or green colour.

Brand names must be in small, non-distinctive lettering.

The four major tobacco companies argue the regulations will destroy their highly-valuable property rights and render products indistinguishable from each other.

Opening the case for the claimants, Japan Tobacco International's barrister, David Anderson QC, told the High Court the companies "manufacture lawful products" used by 19% of the adult population.

He said their sales contributed approximately £10bn in excise duty alone to the Exchequer.

The companies, added Mr Anderson, accepted it was "common ground that smoking is the cause of serious diseases" but were "entitled to know if the regulations [on plain packaging] were lawful".

'Robust defence'

The companies claim the regulations violate a number of UK and EU laws and that data from Australia, which brought in plain packaging in 2012, fails to prove such a move reduces smoking rates.

In written submissions to the judge, Philip Morris International argued that the regulations were "disproportionate and so must be quashed".

The company's QC, Marie Demetriou, said the defendant [the health secretary] had failed to demonstrate that the regulations "strike a fair balance" between "public interest objectives" and the interests of the claimants.

The regulations would "substantially interfere with the claimants' fundamental rights and freedoms", she said.

The Department of Health is fighting the challenge.

James Eadie QC, representing the health secretary, said in written submissions that if the tobacco industry "is prevented from using packaging to promote its products to consumers or potential consumers, the appeal of cigarettes is likely to diminish, with inevitable reducing effects on smoking itself".

He said their case was that "none of the grounds of challenge are made out and the regulations are lawful".

The Department of Health says the change is an important public health measure aimed at discouraging children from smoking and helping smokers to quit.

"Smoking is catastrophic for your health and kills over 100,000 people every year in the UK, with the burden of disease falling most heavily on poorer communities," a spokesman said.

The government would "robustly" defend the policy, and had powerful arguments in its favour, he added.

The department cited an independent review by Sir Cyril Chantler in 2014, which concluded that it was "highly likely" that standardised packaging would reduce the rate of children taking up smoking, and "implausible" that it would increase tobacco consumption.

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