Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Big Tobacco Sues to Keep Cigarette Logos

Australia is planning a step forward in cigarette packaging next year, replacing the current commercial packages with grisly packaging that’s designed to be as ugly as possible while still showing accurately the medical consequences of cigarette smoking. The new cigarette packs will still show the brand of cigarette, but only in two lines of plain text. The legislation has barely been introduced, and Phillip Morris is already suing, claiming it has a legal right to use its logos on cigarette packs.

It’s a high-risk move for Big Tobacco, which has never been able to win similar suits in the more commerce-friendly legal systems of Canada and the United States, but observers say it’s part of a new global campaign of predatory litigation. A similar lawsuit is underway in Uruguay, of all places. Uruguay is a small country that has just a few thousand cigarette smokers, but it has tightened its cigarette labeling laws and the tobacco lawyers may see it as a relatively easy mark.

The tobacco industry will lose all these suits, but it stands to lose more than that. By presenting itself so visibly in such a predatory fashion, Big Tobacco undercuts its own public and political support. A legislator cannot easily vote to protect the interests of a predatory foreign industry. The latest legislative battle for tobacco would ban cigarette smoking in cars where there are children. The world is just now coming around to recognize that children in cars with cigarette smoke sometimes suffer heart attacks and other diseases as a consequence, and if the issue is seen in those terms, moves to protect children from those dangers may be put in place rather quickly.

I have my doubts about the Halloween horror-show themes of cigarette labeling in Canada and coming soon to the United States and Australia. I would rather see cigarette packages that look weak and pathetic, modeled perhaps after the bureaucratic style of a high school hall pass. Horror reinforces addictive behavior, so that theme won’t help people break their addictions. But it will undercut the public standing of cigarettes and will probably dissuade new users, along with some retailers. The new packages are too ugly to be seen in polite company, or in the presence of children. Getting cigarettes out of sight is, at least, a step in the right direction.