The Solicitor - The FindLaw UK Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

World's second biggest tobacco company threatens legal action over packaging

British American Tobacco (BAT), the world's second largest producer of cigarettes, has announced it would consider a legal challenge to any proposal by the UK Government to insist that cigarettes are marketed in plain packaging.

The UK Government is considering legislation that would copy that recently enacted in Australia, where cigarettes are now only legally available in plain, dark brown packages, with health warnings and photographs of the complications of smoking prominently displayed.

The Australian Government introduced a 'plain packaging' law in December 2012, but since then has been embroiled in legal challenges brought by the tobacco industry.

In August 2012 the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of the Government on the plain packaging laws, but despite this the tobacco industry, led by Philip Morris International, have continued to challenge the legality of the law in the courts.

Now it seems the UK Government may face similar challenges if it opts to follow the Australians into banning colourful cigarette packets.

Speaking to The Telegraph, the legal director of BAT said that a legal challenge would have to be considered.

"[Legal action is] something that we would consider depending on what the regulations would be, of course," he said.

The Government has commissioned a report to investigate the proposed plain packaging law, which is ongoing at present.

BAT claims the Australian Government's approach has been a failure, because it has not cut the number of people who smoke. Furthermore they claim that the packaging laws make it easier for counterfeiters to forge tobacco products, flooding the market with cheap, illegal cigarettes that entice the young into starting smoking.

European Union tobacco directive

In a further blow to tobacco companies in the UK, the European Union last week approved new anti-smoking legislation in a bid to cut the number of people who smoke in the EU by 2.4m.

The BBC reports that the EU Tobacco Directive 2001/37/EC is to be updated, with new rules meaning that cigarettes will now only be sold in packets of 20, and the packaging will now have a minimum of 65% of its surface area dedicated to health warnings.

In addition, the sale of menthol cigarettes will be banned, with a proposed phase-out of menthol starting in May this year and concluding in four years' time. The new EU rules will also provide minimum standards for the sale of 'e-cigarettes', although much of the legislation for these will be left to national governments to determine.

The new laws will ensure that e-cigarettes have a maximum amount of nicotine in each product to standardise sales across the EU.

The new EU laws will come into force from May 2014.

The EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said in a statement that the new EU laws were a victory for EU health policy.

"Today is a great day for EU health policy. The new rules will help to reduce the number of people who start smoking in the EU," he said.