Since late 2012 legislation introduced by the government has required the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products in Australia in plain packaging, with brand names restricted to small, generic type. The packaging includes large health warnings and disturbing graphics depicting the ill-health effects of smoking as deterrents. This seems to have been effective, as the recent publication of the National Drugs Strategy Household Survey has shown a decline in tobacco consumption since the introduction of the legislation.

Around the time that the plain packaging legislation was introduced, social media came alive with discussions on how plain packaging might spread to other industries, particularly the alcohol industry.

Fast forward to 2014 and at least one state in Australia has taken initial steps that may eventually lead to plain packaging laws for alcohol products. The Alcoholic Beverages Advertising Prohibition Bill 2012 seeks to impose strict prohibitions on the advertising of alcohol in New South Wales, with restrictions also imposed on sponsorships, competitions and free samples involving alcoholic products. 

Under the bill, ‘alcohol advertisement’ means:

writing, still or moving picture, sign, symbol or other visual image or message or audible message, or a combination of two or more of them, that gives publicity to or otherwise promotes or is intended to promote:

(a) the purchase or use of an alcoholic beverage, or

(b) the trade mark or brand name, or part of a trade mark or brand name, of an alcoholic beverage.

However, an advertisement (presumably including a display of trademarks and/or other indicia) appearing inside a shop or other retail outlet where alcoholic beverages are offered or exposed for sale is not considered an offence.

The second-reading speech in respect of this bill was recently presented and debate was due to resume towards the end of June 2014. 

Looking overseas, the Indonesian government may perhaps go one step further as it considers the introduction of new regulations that would require manufacturers to use plain packaging and/or place graphic warnings on packaging in a bid to lower the number of alcoholic beverage consumers. 

Given that Indonesia is considered a Muslim country, alcohol consumptionis generally low. Nevertheless, the introduction of plain packaging regulations could damage Australia's small but significant wine exports to Indonesia, which amount to $2.4 million (0.1% of the annual total of A$2 billion in wine exports). Perhaps more significant is the production of ‘bootleg’ spirits that regularly result in poisoning and death in both locals and tourists. Plain packaging regulations are unlikely to affect the sale of black-market spirits in Indonesia.

Paradoxically, this announcement by the Indonesian government appears inconsistent with its approach in relation to plain packaged tobacco products. A number of tobacco-producing countries, including Indonesia, have taken action at the World Trade Organisation asserting that the plain packaging legislation breaches Australia's international obligations in respect of trademark protection.

If anything, these issues highlight the tensions between what might be viewed as ‘ethically correct’ action by governments and a right to exploit IP rights to derive commercial value.

This article first appeared in IAM magazine. For further information please visit www.iam-magazine.com.