The Plot Against Plain Packaging (2008)

How multinational tobacco companies colluded to use trade arguments they knew were phoney to oppose plain packaging.

And how health ministers in Canada and Australia fell for their chicanery.


Plain packaging was thrust abruptly onto the Canadian policy stage in February 1994 in the wake of a crisis over tobacco smuggling. It disappeared just as precipitously 20 months later when the Supreme Court ruled against the Tobacco Products Control Act in September 1995.

These dramatic exogenous events perhaps obscured the intensity with which tobacco companies fought – and won – their first public battle against plain packaging (in Canada) and the effectiveness with which they had won a more subtle campaign in Australia.

This paper reviews tobacco industry documents from those years,* and traces the steps taken by the companies to ensure they maintained their ability to use tobacco packages to lend their products visibility and image.

It shows that they decided to fight plain packaging on trade grounds because it provided them a more solid footing than allowing health issues to enter the debate. For this reason, they focused their energies on the Intellectual Property agreements governed by WIPO and the investment protection contained in NAFTA agreements (neither of which, unlike the World Trade Agreements, allow for exemptions on health grounds). Despite being told repeatedly by WIPO that their analysis was flawed, the companies persisted in telling the government and the public that plain packaging would be inconsistent with international intellectual property protections.

The industry’s campaign in Canada was an intensive no-holds-barred fight against a Minister who believed in plain packaging. The Canadian companies set out to discredit her and, within 18 months, with her credibility indeed weakened, she was shuffled out of the health portfolio.

Following the industry’s misrepresentation of international trade law, new health ministers in Canada and Australia forsook plain packaging as a tobacco control measure they mistakenly believed to be contrary to their countries obligations under international trade agreements.

Read more: Physicians for Smoke-Free Canada