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Containing diffusion: the tobacco industry’s multipronged trade strategy to block tobacco standardised packaging


Objective To analyse the tobacco industry’s strategy of using trade and investment agreements to prevent the global diffusion of standardised packaging (SP) of tobacco products.

Methods Review of tobacco industry documents, relevant government documents and media items. The data were triangulated and thematically analysed.

Results Internal tobacco industry documents reveal that during the early 1990s, tobacco companies developed a multipronged trade strategy to prevent the global diffusion of progressive tobacco packaging and labelling proposals, including SP. This strategy consisted of (1) framing the health issue in terms of trade and investment, (2) detailing alleged legal violations concerning trade barriers, intellectual property and investment rights, (3) threatening legal suits and reputational damage, and (4) garnering third-party support. These efforts helped delay SP until 2010 when Australia became the first country to reintroduce SP proposals, followed by governments in the UK and New Zealand in 2012, Ireland in 2013 and France in 2014. Review of government documents and media sources in each of the five countries indicate the industry continues to employ this multipronged strategy throughout the SP policy’s progression. Although this strategy is tailored towards each domestic context, the overall tobacco industry’s trade strategy remains consistently focused on shifting the attention away from public health and towards the realm of trade and investment with more corporate-friendly allies.

Conclusion Governments seeking to implement SP need to be prepared to resist and counter the industry’s multipronged trade strategy by avoiding trade diversions, exposing false industry legal and reputational claims, and monitoring third-party support.

  • packaging and labelling
  • public policy
  • tobacco industry
  • tobacco industry documents

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