BANGKOK — Major international tobacco companies are mounting a legal challenge to Thai health ministry plans to increase graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging. The court battle has wide implications for Thai health policy measures seeking to reduce smoking and combat cancer.
In Thailand lung cancer rates are rising for both sexes and becoming a leading cause of death in men. In a policy backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) Thailand's Ministry of Public Health is planning to increase the size of anti-smoking advertisements on cigarette packaging from 55 percent of the package, to 85 percent.
The WHO believes the large graphic pictures of sick people suffering from the effects of smoking are one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking.
But new regulations that were due to come into effect on October 2 were blocked by international tobacco companies led by Philip Morris with a legal injunction.
The companies argue the ministry exceeded its legal authority and failed to consult thousands of retailers and manufacturers. They also claim the larger warnings undermine the use of trade marks to differentiate products in the market.
Pokpong Srisanit, a Thammasat University law professor, says the challenge to the health ministry by the companies is a first in Thailand. “When the Ministry of Public Health announce a new regulation normally the big company and the small tobacco company obey the regulation. Now, the case of the 85 per cent pictorial health warning the three big companies sued the Ministry of Public Health -- just one [the first] case in the history of tobacco control in Thailand," he stated.
Thailand is adopting measures set out by the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which supports the use of health warnings on packaging to deter smokers.
The WHO said it is backing the Thai Government, and warnings on packaging are considered highly effective measures to reduce tobacco use.
International tobacco company, Philip Morris, argues that further regulations on the health effects of its products are unnecessary as the risks associated with smoking are already widely known.
Medical doctor, Prakit Vachesatogkit, an adviser to the Tobacco Control Division of the Ministry of Public Health, says Thailand is following policies similar to those in Australia, Uruguay and Sri Lanka in recent years.
"The net effect of the graphic warning is it will eventually decrease the smoking, it will make the smoker start to quit. It is not just on graphic warnings but other tobacco control measures such as the banning of smoking [in places], [and] price increases. So it's a combination of effects," said Vachesatogkit. "It will not just decrease the lung cancer it will also decrease other diseases as a result of decreased smoking."
Australian lawyer and member of the Federal government's expert advisory group on measures to reduce smoking, Jonathan Liberman, said the case is about governments ability to regulate industry in the interest of public health.
"Countries have to defend these measures against these legal claims and legal threats that are brought by the tobacco industry. It tries to intimidate governments and sue them, rather than just allow them to implement the measures that will reduce death and disease and enormous social and economic costs. The government's can't be intimidated there's too much at stake," said Liberman.
Both the companies and the Thai health ministry are presenting their cases before the Administrative Court. A ruling by the court is expected late this year or in early 2014.