LONDON (AdAge.com) -- The European Union is proposing a full-scale ban on branded cigarettes, forcing tobacco companies across the continent to sell their products in generic, plain packaging.
Under the new rules, packs would carry nothing more than a health warning and the name of the brand, both in a standardized format with a specified typeface.
Since cigarette advertising was outlawed across Europe in 2003, packaging -- known as "the silent salesman" -- has been the only way for cigarette manufacturers to keep their brands in the spotlight.
Opponents of the move have until Dec. 15 to make their case heard, with a decision expected in February. Even if the EU decides in favor of plain packaging, it could take another five years before the law comes into effect -- especially if the tobacco companies carry out their threat to make a legal challenge against the ruling.
Andrew Lansley, the U.K. secretary of state for public health, believes that plain packs would de-glamorize the habit and stop young people from taking up smoking. But the Tobacco Manufacturers Association said, "We do not believe any plans for plain packaging are based on sound public policy, nor any compelling evidence."
The International Advertising Association has written to the EU to argue against the prohibition of on-pack cigarette branding. Erich Buxbaum, VP and area director for Europe, said, "All brands are registered trademarks. This could lead into a vast legal process -- companies will sue the EC. They pay a lot of money every year for their trademarks."
Imperial Tobacco, manufacturer of cigarette brands including Davidoff, JPS, Gitanes and Gauloises Blondes, called plain packs "unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified." In a statement the company said, "Governments that consider introducing plain packaging risk breaching a range of legal and treaty obligations relating to intellectual property rights, international trade and European Union law."
Anne Edwards, director external communications, Philip Morris International, said, "To date every country that has considered plain packaging has rejected it due to lack of evidence and associated [intellectual property] issues. Even in Australia ... the government's own intellectual property body, IP Australia, recently advised ... that plain packaging 'may not be consistent with Australia's intellectual property treaty obligations' and 'would make it easier for counterfeit goods to be produced and would make it difficult to readily identify these counterfeit goods.'"
The counterfeit issue was also raised by Mr. Buxbaum, who claimed that 10% of all trade in Europe is in counterfeit goods. Illicit cigarettes, he said, deny significant revenues to European governments, most of which claim 50% of the sale price in tax, and -- according to the IAA letter -- "come with no guarantee about the ingredients and product safety."
However, Action on Smoking and Health, a campaigning public-health charity in the U.K., said it has heard all these arguments before.
Martin Dockrell, the organization's director of research and policy, said, "The tobacco companies used the same arguments against the tobacco advertising ban. They still retain their rights over their logos -- but it doesn't mean they can use them however they like. They can't use them on billboards and soon they won't be able to use them on packaging."
Mr. Dockrell said that unbranded packs would not lead to an increase in smuggling. He argued that branded and unbranded packs are equally easy for counterfeiters to replicate.
As well as the introduction of unbranded packaging, the EU is also considering a ban on in-store cigarette displays and on cigarette vending machines.
The IAA has chosen to concentrate its efforts on a protest against the packaging ban. Mr. Buxbaum said, "I don't want to become a spokesman for the tobacco industry. I am concentrating on the packaging issue because plain packaging would kill branding." The IAA has no tobacco companies as members in Europe, although it does have a couple in the U.S.
Independent of the EU, the English parliament voted last year in favor of a ban on the display of tobacco products in shops in England. Larger shops will have to comply by 2011, while smaller shops will have until 2013. However, a change of government in May means that the new legislation is not guaranteed to go ahead.