Tobacco packaging serves as the most cost-effective communications channel for governments to convey health risks associated with tobacco use. Especially among those with low literacy levels, pictorial health warnings (PHWs) are an effective health promotion tool to increase awareness of tobacco’s harmful effects with no costs to government.
As part of a growing global trend, at least 115 countries/jurisdictions have legislated PHWs to date in accordance with WHO FCTC Article 11 and its implementation guidelines, adopted at the third session of the FCTC Conference of Parties (COP 3) in 2008. In 2016, ASEAN became the first region in the world where all ten member states require PHWs on tobacco packages.
The Article 11 Guidelines recommend that health warnings be as large as possible and include pictures to effectively communicate health harms of tobacco use Thailand currently requires the world’s fourth largest PHWs (85% front and back of the pack) after East Timor (92.5%), Nepal and Vanuatu (90%) and New Zealand (87.5%). Three other ASEAN countries (Brunei, Lao PDR, and Myanmar) require PHW sizes that are considered international best practice (at least 75%). The Article 11 Guidelines also recommend plain or standardized packaging, which enhances visibility of the PHWs and reduces the appeal of tobacco products. In 2012, Australia was the first country to implement plain tobacco packaging. Eight more countries (France, United Kingdom, Norway, Ireland, New Zealand, Hungary and Slovenia) have also legislated plain packaging, and there are at least 16 other jurisdictions that are formally considering plain packaging. With the recent World Trade Organization dispute panel decision upholding Australia’s right to require plain packaging, it is expected that even more countries will follow suit.
In ASEAN, Singapore and Thailand are in advanced stages of preparing plain packaging legislation. In 2016, the Malaysia government had also announced plans to introduce plain packaging but, succumbed to tobacco industry pressure and stalled its preparation.
Increasing number of countries requiring PHWs on cigarette packages (2001-2018)
Leader of pack warnings size
Four ASEAN countries among top 14 countries worldwide with the biggest pictorial health warnings size.
Thailand: ASEAN’s biggest pictorial health warnings (85%)
In April 2013, Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) passed a regulation requiring pictorial health warnings to cover the upper 85% of front and back panels of packs; however, implementation was delayed due to a legal challenge by the tobacco industry, including Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Philip Morris (PM), and British American Tobacco (BAT), that led to an injunction being issued by the Central Administration Court. On 26 June 2014, the Supreme Administration Court ruled in favor of the MoPH and cancelled the injunction, clearing the way for implementation of the larger 85% warnings. All tobacco products sold in Thailand were required to carry the new pictorial warnings by 23 September 2014.
Large PHWs on cigarette packages in ASEAN countries
ASEAN image bank of copyright-free pictorial health warnings (PHWs)
In collaboration with ASEAN Focal Points on Tobacco Control (AFPTC), SEATCA has established a sharing mechanism of copyright-free pictorial health warning images of ASEAN countries. SEATCA continues to:
- Provide technical assistance to countries on development and implementation of PHWs policies.
- Facilitate access to high-resolution and copyright-free PHW images from Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and other ASEAN countries.
- Provide sample cigarette packs from the ASEAN region for advocacy purposes.
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Evolution of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packages in ASEAN
Implementation timeline of pictorial health warnings in ASEAN
- The implementation of 2nd rotation of PHWs will be enforced in October 2018.
- The second rotation of PHWs will be enforced on 1 January 2019, one year grace period is given to tobacco industry to clear old PHW cigarette packages.
- The full implementation of PHWs was delayed due to strong tobacco industry interference. Tobacco industry was given three times extension deadline from 1 October 2016 and the new implementation date effective on 1 January 2018 (a total of 19 months grace period after Pictorial Health Warnings Regulation was legislated in May 2016.
- Myanmar requires 10 PHWs, only one is to be printed every 12 months beginning on 1 September 2016. The implementation of 2nd rotation of PHWs was delayed till December 2017 due to interference by tobacco industry.
- The full implementation of PHWs was delayed by a court case filed by tobacco companies. The Thai Supreme Administrative Court ruled against the tobacco industry, allowing PHWs to be implemented effective on 23 September 2014, 90 days after the court decision
Best practice: Australia’s plain packaging – A world first
- prohibits brand colours and logos
- requires a standard colour, shape and format of packages
- requires the brand name to appear in a standard font size and style on a specific space on the package
Australia was the first country to implement plain packaging of cigarettes, effective on the 1st December 2012.The plain packaging law restricts or prohibits the use of logos, colours, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style, with graphic health warning images occupying an average of 87.5% of the front and back panels of the pack, while a fire-risk statement covers the bottom 10% of the back panel. This is in line with its international obligations under Articles 11 and 13 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).
Philip Morris Asia mounted a challenge in the Singapore-based international court using provisions - known as investor-state dispute settlement. The legal claim for alleged breaches in the ‘fair and equitable treatment’ obligation under the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment agreement dismissed on 17 December 2015. A six-year legal battle came in favor of public health when the court ordered Philip Morris to pay the Australian government (about USD 50 million in legal costs after its failed bid to kill off plain packaging laws in July 2017. On 28 June 2018, a panel of dispute-settlement experts (World Trade Organization) backed the legality of Australia’s 2011 plain packaging law as being consistent with international trade and intellectual property laws. The decision upheld Australia’s right to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packs.
The victory has come despite fierce opposition and threatened huge lawsuits from the tobacco industry. Australia has paved the way and inspiring other countries to move this forward. Australia plain packaging law sets a precedent for the world and encourages other countries especially in the ASEAN region (Thailand and Singapore) are considering to implement plain packaging. There are increasing number of countries in various stages of development and adoption of similar laws.
Plain packaging in ASEAN: Under consideration
Plain packaging around the world
Plain packaging has been adopted in 8 countries and is under consideration in at least 16 other jurisdictions. These include Canada, Uruguay, Thailand, Singapore, Belgium, Romania, Chile, Turkey, Taiwan, Jersey, Guernsey, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Finland, and South Africa. More governments expressed support for plain packaging implementation such as Mauritius, Kenya, Gambia, Botswana, and Burkina Faso.
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Disclosure of information on relevant constituents and emissions of tobacco products in ASEAN
Countries that have banned false or misleading descriptors in ASEAN
For more detailed information, please visit http://tobaccolabels.seatca.org and refer to SEATCA Tobacco Packaging and Labelling Index: Implementation of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Article 11 in ASEAN Countries (2016).