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Big Tobacco loses in UK Supreme Court; plain packaging laws remain intact

When Big Tobacco companies Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco were told by the British government in 2015 that they must adhere to new plain packaging requirements, they took their fight to the UK Supreme Court.  Last week, they lost their battle when Lord Mance, Lord Sumption, and Lord Carnwarth refused to hear their case.  And their additional request for a transfer to the European Union’s Court of Justice was also rejected. 

This latest refusal is likely due, at least in part, to Great Britain’s recent Brexit vote.  Now that the UK is officially beginning the process of permanently extricating itself from the European Union, the legislation named the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations of 2015 is the sole law of the land.  Also included in this legislative package are regulations requiring Big Tobacco to sell cigarettes in minimum packs of twenty, as opposed to the usual UK standard of ten.  Similar statutes require rolling and pipe tobacco to be sold in 30 gram minimum containers, as well.

Why does the UK want plain packaging for Big Tobacco?

The thought process behind the increased minimums is considered to be a sort of deterrent against youngsters potentially buying Big Tobacco products.   10 cigarette packs, for example, are significantly cheaper than twenty-packs, and therefore, allegedly easier for teens to buy.

Furthermore, tobacco retailers are no longer allowed to advertise Big Tobacco products in any way, which is leading many local supermarket and convenience store vendors to include shutters over their cigarette, cigar, and pipe tobacco inventory - as if dull, brown, generic packaging wasn’t enough of a deterrent.   Understandably, Big Tobacco is not at all happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling.  A spokesperson for British American Tobacco issued the following statement.

“The judgment, if left to stand, should also raise real concerns for many other legitimate businesses as it creates a worrying precedent whereby public policy concerns can ride roughshod over long established fundamental commercial rights.”

Regardless of the alleged “roughshod” treatment of Big Tobacco, one thing is clear.  Since the UK introduced plain packaging requirements and other new regulations, smoking in the UK has hit a nearly 45-year low.  According to a recent report published by the UK Office of National Statistics, British smoking rates have not been this low since 1974.  Brits who smoke are only smoking about eleven cigarettes per day. And the numbers of 18 to 24-year-old smokers dropped from 25.7 percent to 20.7 percent in less than two years.

While plain packaging apparently played a significant role in these new figures, The Office of National Statistics also credits the rise in popularity of vaping as a major contributing factor. 


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