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Feature Tobacco Control

Slaying the dragon: how the tobacco industry refuses to die

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 22 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2052
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist, Suffolk, UK
  1. jonathangornall{at}

The tobacco industry is using an increasing range of techniques to regain its influence over public policy making—with some alarming success, reports Jonathan Gornall

On 11 March, the UK’s House of Commons took a bold and exemplary step, voting into law legislation that will introduce plain packaging for cigarettes in England by May 2016. Following Australia and, by just a few weeks, Ireland, England becomes only the third country to open up this latest front in the battle against tobacco harm.

The decision was exemplary, says the global tobacco control campaigner Judith Mackay, because it will encourage other countries with fewer resources to follow suit. But it was bold because inevitably the UK will now be engulfed in a storm of legal challenges from an industry determined to fight for every inch of ground, even as its products continue to kill millions around the world (fig 1).

The UK has voted itself into membership of a select club of countries that since 2010 have been embroiled in legal actions launched by the industry. They include pathfinder Australia, which has been fighting challenges to its Tobacco Plain Packaging Act since 2011.

“I would say that nowadays no country can pass seriously useful legislation without a legal challenge,” says Mackay, senior adviser to the World Lung Foundation and the World Health Organization.

“The courts throw out almost all these cases, but the problem is they intimidate and leave other countries very reluctant to step into the fray.”

Within days of the vote in the House of Commons, the industry made plain its determination to fight plain packaging all the way, contesting the loss of its intellectual property rights —pack designs and branding—and alleged breaches of World Trade Organisation rules on international trade.

“Legal action is not something we want to …

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