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Cigarette packaging war heats up

Cigarette packaging war heats up

British American Tobacco recently took the unusual step of launching an ad campaign to state its case against the plain cigarette packaging proposal and now it has launched the next phase of its campaign focusing on the issues it believes plain packaging could create for other New Zealand export industries.


The main thrust of BAT's argument is that IP is central to business and forcing them to remove the branding on its packaging is tantamount to theft. Of course, not everyone sees it that way and many feel that different rules should apply when what's inside that packaging is a known harmful substance. But BAT spokesman Nick Booth, who confirmed the creative agency as G2 Sydney, which is part of the Grey Network BAT is globally aligned to, and the production and website designers as Sydney based Captiv8, says there will be a few iterations of new creative throughout the campaign that will focus on what it believes will result from plain packaging "and the international trade stuff is obviously a fairly big one". 

The other aspects it will focus on in its campaign, such as the creation of a black market or being forced to compete on price, can be seen on www.agreedisagree.co.nz, which, despite the name, doesn't allow debate (that's been taken care of elsewhere, however). 

Australia has recently decided to introduce plain packaging after a high court ruling allowed it to proceed (the reasons for the decision have not yet been released, however), but several tobacco producing and manufacturing countries have taken challenges to the World Trade Organisation. Health looks likely to trump trade in Australia. But Booth says it's difficult to say what will happen in New Zealand because a bill hasn't been tabled by the government (it's in a consultation phase and anyone can make a submission until October 5).

Paul Adams, founder and chief executive of EverEdge IP, says the Australian decision may well influence action by our government, if only by setting an example that tobacco companies can be taken on and beaten than in any direct precedent. 

He doesn't see this as creating a precedent for a general erosion of IP rights, however.

"I have little doubt that the value of their trademarks is significantly impacted by such a decision.  However, this doesn’t automatically give them any claim.  They are not the only product to have suffered a devaluation of their brand because of a change of government legislation – this happens regularly," he says.

"However, in the past it has generally been a change in law making a product itself illegal.  What would be the value of some of our most valuable trademarks if a law prohibiting alcohol was introduced?  There is plenty of precedent for taking action on packaging as well.  Tobacco companies are already compelled to carry graphic images that are not flattering to their product and brand image on their packaging.  Plain packaging may be seen as an extension of that."   

In a release, BAT's general manager Steve Rush said the campaign raises the proposition that "if New Zealand doesn’t respect international brands, why should other nations respect ours?" 

“Australia introduced plain packaging of tobacco and is now the subject of World Trade Organisation challenges from several countries. Furthermore, a number of other countries, including some of New Zealand’s trading partners, have expressed serious concerns about plain packaging. The concern is that the government’s plain packaging proposal could run counter to the trade treaties to which New Zealand is a party. New Zealand has signed a number of international trade agreements which are very clear about the need to protect intellectual property. It is important that these trade principles are applied consistently."

While health minister Tony Ryall has said BAT is wasting its money on this campaign, it is hoping to show that if the decision does go ahead it could be a slippery slope for other products, and particularly alcohol, which is under increasing pressure for more regulation and, if you're talking about harm to the user and society as a whole, was proven to be worse than tobacco in the 'Making a hash of it' study in the UK. 

As it says on BAT's website, the British government has issued a white paper on alcohol that includes plain packaging as a policy option, while the South African health minister has stated he would like to remove branding from alcohol. And Booth says Thailand is looking at a law that would see graphic images like those seen on tobacco packaging placed on booze bottles. Interestingly, he says New Zealand, Australia, South American and some other wine producing nations have taken a challenge to the World Trade Organisation over this decision. 

Overall, Booth says the campaign has received plenty of coverage when it launched and there has been plenty of debate since then, but he says "we're in for the long haul." 

While BAT is putting its case forward (albeit with a campaign said to cost hundreds of thousands), anti-smoking groups and Plain Packs NZ are doing the same. And, getting inspiration from a clip for the Cancer Research UK, it has tried to demonstrate the appeal of packaging to kids. 

Part of this story originally appeared on StopPress