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Malaysia faces fight over plain tobacco packaging


03-15-2016 07:24 BJT

Malaysia’s government says it wants to emulate Australia -- the only country in the world that so far requires plain, generic packaging for cigarettes. The industry, some business groups and intellectual property advocates warn that the proposal could backfire, and lead to a spike in counterfeit smokes.

Malaysia already bans smoking in enclosed spaces, and requires graphic health warnings on cigarette packages.

But the government wants to go further, stripping tobacco packaging of all branding except the name, as Australia has already done, and others like France and Canada are planning to do.

"There have been studies done and it has shown that if you just put plain packaging with the name of the manufacturer in a specified font, no heraldic emblems, no image, then in fact people tend to buy fewer boxes of cigarettes, tend to smoke less." said Dr. Ashok Philip, president of Malaysian Medical Association.

Not surprisingly, big tobacco firms like the makers of cigarette brands including Camel and Winston, staunchly oppose the move. 

The industry estimates that four out of 10 cigarettes consumed in Malaysia were smuggled in from neighboring countries, bypassing taxation and quality control. They say packaging devoid of brand identifiers would increase contraband and make counterfeiting far easier.

Intellectual property groups agree and point out that Australia’s plain packaging law is already being challenged through the World Trade Organization. 

Opponents of the plan say banning branding on tobacco products would set a dangerous precedent for other products and industries. But supporters say that public health concerns should trump all other considerations.

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