Objections to the proposed Irish tobacco plain packaging law: an overview

Ireland is obliged by international law to reduce smoking. In the last decade we took the initiative by restricting advertising and sponsorship and introducing a workplace ban. Current Government policy goes much further: a tobacco free Ireland in 11 years. The next step toward that goal is to remove branding from tobacco products, just as the Australians did two years ago. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children is considering a law that would make all cigarette packets look the same, containing government notices alone.

The tobacco industry lobbied ferociously against the Australian plain packaging law, but it was passed. They sued the Australian government and lost. They are funding tobacco-producing nations in taking a case to the World Trade Organisation alleging that Australia has breached international law. But intellectual property and trade laws don’t trump health protection. The Australian High Court said that intellectual property is designed to serve public policy as well as private interests. Australia implemented its law to fulfil its commitments under the World Health Organisation convention on tobacco control (FCTC). Ireland has also signed and ratified the FCTC, and while the convention doesn’t strictly require plain packaging laws the WHO encourages them. The Minister for Health’s policy of a tobacco free Ireland by 2025 was announced as an FCTC implementation measure.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee sought submissions on plain packaging and recently held hearings. Unsurprisingly, it received opposition from the tobacco industry. The industry made four core points:

  1. there is no evidence that the law will reduce smoking;
  2. it would breach national and international law;
  3. it would lead to an increase in counterfeiting and
  4. it will damage Ireland’s reputation for protecting intellectual property.

The Law Society made submissions, drafted by its intellectual property committee, which made the very same four core points as the industry, in almost identical terms. They gave no alternative view or guidance on the existence or strength of arguments that could be made against the claims of the industry.

The tobacco industry and the Law Society, of course, have a point: these laws fundamentally restrict intellectual property rights. But intellectual property rights are negative: they allow you to stop others using similar names. They do not, in themselves, give you the right to use them. Trade mark law allows authorities to refuse the registration of a trade mark if the mark is contrary to public policy.

Drug companies cannot advertise directly to consumers in Ireland. Pharmacists are required to suggest generic alternatives to branded products. These regulatory measures challenge the intellectual property rights of drug companies, who also happen to be significant foreign direct investors in Ireland. But the tobacco industry and the Law Society are not equally concerned about the effects of those laws on “Ireland Inc”. They are more interested in trying to gain support from the food industry. The Director General, Ken Murphy, worries that the next target will be Kerrygold. This ignores the obvious point that consumer foodstuffs are not, by their nature, harmful to public health when consumed as intended. This is not the case with tobacco.

All anti-smoking measures introduced over the past two decades restrict and interfere with the tobacco industry’s interests. Most also limit intellectual property rights, particularly their trade marks. “Marlboro Lights” is a registered Irish trade mark, but it can no longer be used because it suggests one product is less harmful than another. Most would consider such a restriction to be reasonable and justifiable.

The tobacco industry and the Law Society argue that plain packaging laws breach international law, in particular the TRIPS and Paris Conventions. This is not a novel legal debate: the Australians have already been down this road and there are copious academic texts and commentaries on the argument. Respected intellectual property academics like Professors Mark Davison and Matthew Rimmer argue the role of international law may be quite limited. They point to the fact that international law does not give the tobacco industry a right to use their intellectual property. It follows that if a government restricts or prohibits the use of branding, it is not attacking a protected right of the industry.

But the Law Society told the Oireachtas none of this.

The spectre of unconstitutionality was even raised by by the tobacco industry and the Law Society, but they give little detail of this argument and reason by analogy to electricity pylons and planning permission. A highly respected member of the Law Society’s own committee that drafted the submissions doesn’t agree – but this view was not put before the Oireachtas.

The tobacco industry and the Law Society all but ignore the public health motivations of plain packaging and fall back on the weak assertion that there is no evidence to justify it. This is, at best, debateable and, at worst, circular. Evidence that the law will work can only be obtained after introduction. Furthermore, the Australian law was based on significant research and was supported by leading health experts. After the law was introduced calls to smoking quitlines soared and the rate of smoking declined. Even supporters caution that it is too soon to know if the law caused that reduction, but the indications are positive.

The tobacco industry and the Law Society are also concerned about counterfeiting because, they say, plain packs will be easier to copy. The argument is nonsense and when the Gardaí and Revenue Commissioners told the Oireachtas that they did not expect an increased workload as a result of a plain packaging law, the Law Society dropped the claim. The argument is also contradictory and the tobacco industry has long maintained that all paper-based packaging is easy to counterfeit. In fact, the most difficult element of packaging to copy is the Revenue stamp, which will still appear on plain packs. As Cancer Research UK point out “The reality is that all packs are easy to counterfeit and that plain packaging will not make any difference.”

Australia is the only country to have introduced plain packaging and it has done so very recently. Firm evidence of the success of the law is not yet available but the signs are positive. There are very convincing arguments against legal objections to such a law, but the Law Society failed to bring them to the attention of the Oireachtas.

1 Response to “Objections to the proposed Irish tobacco plain packaging law: an overview”


  1. 1 Colin McGovern (@cmcgovern) 4 April 2014 at 09:47

    I would also add with respect to the counterfeiting point that it has been repeatedly pointed out that most cigarettes sold on the black market are illegally imported genuine packs (in the sense of manufactured by a major tobacco company rather than a criminal operation).

    Having plain packaging in Ireland would surely expose that more easily until packs from traditional sources of smuggled cigarettes introduced their own plain-packaging laws.


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