Uruguay set to become a world leader for restricting tobacco branding as plain packaging bill reaches Congress

Today Uruguay’s government submitted a bill for plain tobacco packaging to Congress. Once passed, the country will have the world’s most comprehensive set of restrictions on tobacco branding, and its associated marketing benefits. The tobacco industry are already limited by the ‘single presentation’ regulation – which means tobacco companies can only sell one variant within its brand family.

The plain packaging bill will require all tobacco packs to be a standardised shape, size and material; product information will be restricted to a name displayed in standardised text, and the background will be a standardised, unattractive colour. This adds to current regulation requiring graphic health warnings to cover 80 percent of the front and back of cigarette packages, which already makes Uruguay a leading country for this policy.

“We applaud Uruguay’s comprehensive strategy for reducing tobacco use and protecting and promoting the health of citizens. Through fearless political commitment to tobacco control at the highest level, Uruguay has become a world leader in tobacco control. This new policy will take the country a step closer to neutralising the power of tobacco brands - prioritising the health of citizens above the interests of the tobacco industry.’’ said José Luis Castro, Executive Director of The Union

Plain or ‘standardised’ packaging is a powerful public health measure proven to help smokers quit and discourage non-smokers from starting. This bill aims to further reduce the product’s appeal, eliminate tobacco advertisement and promotion; eliminate the possibility of misleading or deceiving consumers that a product is less harmful than another; and increase visibility and effectiveness of graphic health warnings. Uruguay already prohibits all tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, including point-of-sale displays. The use of terms, such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’  for describing tobacco products is also banned.

The Union is giving full technical and legal support to this initiative, through a grant from the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use. This contribution allowed the government of Uruguay to build a solid evidence base, including a legal study of this legislation in other countries. It also conducted research, published in the BMJ’s Tobacco Control, showing that the proposed plain tobacco packaging design increased risk perception of cigarette products among current Uruguayan smokers. Both the elimination of distinctive brand elements and the use of Australia’s dark brown background colour were important factors. The government will carry out similar studies among pregnant women, teenagers, and high-prevalence population groups.

In 2016 Uruguay successfully defended its ‘single presentation’ regulation before the World Bank-hosted International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) against a six-year legal challenge from Philip Morris International, who claimed that reducing brand families to a single product breached trademark law. The ICSID ruling confirmed this regulation against the industry complaint.

Tobacco control advocates expect that the plain packaging bill will pass through Congress quickly and without amendment, since this is a policy priority for President Tabaré Vazquez, whose party has a legislative majority. Uruguay will then become the first country in the world to have plain tobacco packaging and a ‘single presentation’ per brand. The government will then regulate the specific plain packaging requirements. Plain packaging is expected to be in the market by 2019.