The Battle for Public Health: Can the Tobacco Industry Have the Final Say?

Battle for Public Health

The Battle for Public Health: Can the Tobacco Industry Have the Final Say?

A tobacco company is suing the Irish Government.

The Irish government, which isn’t enjoying record support among its citizens, has, in fairness, been a bit of a champion of public health policy when it comes to tobacco this past decade. Ireland was the first country in the world to adopt the ‘smoking ban’, back in 2004, making it illegal to smoke indoors. Tobacco taxation in Ireland is one of the highest in the world (around 80% of money spent on a box of cigarettes is tax and VAT and although the government accrues €2bn a year from tobacco taxation, the primary driver of the elevated cost of cigarettes is to curb smoking rates among the population (see Ladder of Intervention appendix)). Marketing tobacco is strictly regulated here, to the point where you can no longer see cigarettes behind the shop counter; they’re now contained behind blank vending machines that dispense only when the customer has requested their particular brand. And now, the government is set to bring in plain packaging laws by 2017, to further reduce the impact of marketing and branding of cigarettes and tobacco. They’re not the pioneers of this, but, if it goes ahead, they will be only the second country in the world to have plain-packaging legislation; Australia implemented this legislation in 2012, amid huge legal threats from four tobacco companies. One of those companies, Japan Tobacco International, is the same company that has initiated legal action against the Irish government this week following the passing of the Public Health (Standardised Packaging of Tobacco) Act 2015. Ireland is set to have plain-packaging legislation by 2016, in full effect by 2017, but the tobacco industry is not happy and is set to put up an almighty fight.

There are some very well-reasoned arguments coming from the tobacco industry about how plain-packaging will exponentially increase trade on the black market, and that it infringes individual choice (they funded a campaign called ‘Hands Off Our Packs’ in the UK), and that it is an infringement on intellectual property rights. All of these arguments are sound, reasoned, and for the most part, valid.

But the problem is, tobacco is the number one contributor to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) worldwide. We are currently living through an era where the choices we make regarding our diet and lifestyle are having more of a detrimental effect than Malaria, AIDS, Ebola, famine and war. Combined. Smoking alone kills 5 million people every year through respiratory disease and cancer. Smoking is an addiction, and the branding and the marketing go a long way in initiating the addiction, particularly at an early age. This is why, regardless of the intellectual property rights of a company, when that product is categorically proven to be responsible for the death of 5 million people every year, then public health must take precedent.

John Oliver had a wonderful segment on this very topic about 6 weeks ago on his HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Check it out, here. It’s incredulous, hilarious, and shows just how bizarre the notion of a company taking a country to court over that country’s efforts to improve public health really is. Ireland just poked the beast, and may very well set a precedent in Europe regarding tobacco regulations. Keep yer ear to the ground on this one.

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The Ladder of Interventions is a Public Policy tool, highlighting the different approaches governments can take to have an impact on public behaviour. Tobacco is very tightly regulated in Ireland, probably the most of all commodities. Food is now higher on the agenda, and the government may introduce similar regulations for high-fat or high-sugar foods. The concept of a “Fat Tax” has been floated for a while. Alcohol is still not tightly regulated in Ireland, and the Drink Aware, or Drink Responsibly Campaign is the extent of the interventions here.

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