Introduced for the first time in Australia in 2012, plain cigarette packaging aims to reduce the appeal of smoking by tackling the incentives linked to the brands’ name, logo and overall design. More than a dozen countries around the world have taken similar action in the last few years, including France and the U.K. In these countries, all types of cigarettes have to be sold in almost identical, standardized packaging, with health warnings (text or pictures) taking up most of the space on the pack.
Despite being one of the country with the highest share of smokers (around 24% of the adult population), the Czech Republic has, for the time being, refused to implement such a measure. The Czech Agriculture Ministry recently considered it was a “senseless approach”, arguing that there was “no empirical proof” of its efficiency and “no scientific study” to back the claim it curbed smoking habits.
On the other hand, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Gabriela Štěpanyová acknowledged that standardized packs of cigarettes were a step in the right direction to make smoking less appealing, especially for young people. The issue remains, therefore, quite divisive, even within the Czech government.
Civil society organisations and activists are urging decision makers to follow the path of Australia. Preliminary steps have also been taken at the EU level: the revised Tobacco Products Directive, which came into force in 2016, introduced stricter measures on packaging, including the obligation for 65% of the surface to include health warnings.
On the other side, tobacco companies, tobacconists and various lobbies quite naturally oppose the measure. Earlier this year, the Property Rights Alliance, an international alliance of think-tank, advocacy groups and civil society organisations, urged the World Health Organisation, at the forefront of this campaign, to abandon this “ineffective” measure, which they qualified as a “gross violation” of intellectual property rights on top of being a “complete failure”.
Opponents are claiming that, if implemented for cigarettes, plain packaging should also be applied to other products, such as alcoholic beverages. But its advocates consider that it’s impossible, if not hypocritical, to treat tobacco like any other product. In a landmark ruling, the World Trade Organisation recently rejected the claim, brought forward by four leading tobacco producers (Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Indonesia) that plain packaging violates international trade rules and backed Australia in the 7-year-long legal dispute.
Experts also have a hard time agreeing on the efficiency of this measure. In most countries, it might be too soon to draw conclusions: during the six months following its implementation in France, for instance, data showed that cigarettes sales were higher than on the same period of the last previous years. Further studies on the issue might incite other countries, like the Czech Republic, to start a real debate on the topic.
One year ago, the Czech Republic introduced a smoking ban in public spaces (including bars and restaurants), a measure that has already proven efficient in reducing the number of smokers and related health diseases and that remains supported by a large majority of the Czech population.