Tobacco giants to take legal action as MPs vote in favour of plain packs

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Tobacco companies look almost certain to take legal action against the government after MPs ratified its plans to introduce plain packaging by May next year.

However, Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) told The Grocer it was “very unlikely” legal action would delay implementation. She pointed out the sell-through period in Australia was eight weeks whereas a year had been specified in the UK.

Today MPs voted 367 in favour and 113 against making the UK the third country to pass such legislation.

The regulations will require manufacture of branded packaging to cease by 20 May 2016, with a full introduction of plain packs in all UK retail outlets by 21 May 2017.

Japan Tobacco International (UK) JTI UK, was among tobacco companies that said it planned to take legal action.

Daniel Torras, managing director of JTI UK, said it was “a cut-and-paste copycat policy from Australia” where plain packaging had not worked.

“It’s putting politics before process, evidence and debate. We consider this legislation to be unlawful, JTI therefore expects to challenge the legislation through the legal channels available to us.”

JTI and others had “repeatedly and consistently” said that plain packaging infringed important principles of UK and European law, and other fundamental rights, and went against obligations under World Trade Organisation rules, Torras said.

British American Tobacco (BAT) confirmed it would begin a legal challenge against the government if the House of Lords supported MPs.

“This legislation is a case of the UK government taking property from a UK business without paying for it. That is illegal under both UK and European law.

Legal action was not something BAT wanted to undertake, nor was it something it entered into lightly but the government had left it with no other choice after running what could only be described as a flawed consultation process,” said BAT corporate & regulatory affairs director Jerome Abelman.

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

Imperial Tobacco’s head of corporate and legal affairs, Duncan Cunningham, said: “If plain packaging passes into law, we would regrettably be left with no choice but to defend our legal rights in court as we have a fundamental right to differentiate our brands from those of our competitors.”

Association of Convenience Store chief executive James Lowman said: “We have consistently told ministers and policy makers that the introduction of standardised packaging will place significant operational burdens on retailers.

“We are disappointed with this decision, and would have liked to see a review of existing and upcoming tobacco control measures, such as the tobacco display ban, before the government introduce more regulations on small stores.”

However, the draft legislation includes an exemption for wholesalers and distributors to clearly brand outer packaging within their premises.

James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said: “We would have preferred to see a more convincing evidence base for this legislation, and for the tobacco display ban, which has not yet been introduced in smaller shops, to have been given time to have a measurable effect.”

It was imperative for wholesalers that packaging in the supply chain was clearly branded so that retailers in could make informed choices about the products they offered to their customers, and avoid chaos and cost in distribution centres.

“Packaging which is not seen by consumers cannot affect attitudes to smoking, and should therefore not be standardised. We have made this point to the government and are pleased this exemption has been included in the draft legislation,” Bielby said.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity Action on Smoking and Health said: “The government and MPs from all parties, are to be congratulated for resisting the bully-boy tactics and misinformation of the tobacco industry and for implementing the most important public health reform of this Parliament.”

She said the organisation had got legal opinion to say that standardised packs was compatible with European law, and compensation would therefore not be due to the tobacco industry.

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