Friday, April 20, 2012

Plain packaging

The government has announced it will be moving towards plain packaging for cigarettes. Good. While we've banned advertising for this addictive and harmful product, the tobacco industry has been able to evade the bans by using the packaging of the product itself. Using plain packaging will prevent that. They'll still be able to sell, but they won't be able to present their product as anything other than what it is: cancer in a box.

Over in Australia, the tobacco companies are challenging a similar law, arguing that it is an unconstitutional taking of property. Given that product labelling standards are widely accepted, that's unlikely to succeed. They won't be able to mount such a challenge here, because we don't protect property rights in that way. A challenge on free speech grounds is likely to result in a finding that it is a justified limitation. But the real worry isn't domestic law, but the various free trade agreements both countries have signed, which contain clauses protecting foreign companies against "expropriation". In the Americas, such clauses have been used to overturn basic environmental and health standards for the benefit of polluting corporations. And there is every chance that we will similarly face an international veto on this basic public health measure, so a foreign corporation can profit by selling us cancer.

Its a stark reminder that we should not sign up to such agreements, ever. Free trade with appropriate protections for human rights, workers rights, and the environment, is fine. A foreign veto on domestic law is not.