Norwegian court backs ban on tobacco displays

In collaboration with the Press Association

An Oslo court has backed the Norwegian government's right to introduce laws banning the visible display of tobacco products in stores.

Philip Morris International, the world's largest tobacco firm, launched a lawsuit against the Norwegian state after it introduced legislation in 2010 to "de-normalise" smoking.

The Scandinavian nation banned cigarette and alcohol advertising back in 1975, but the new law requires cigarettes to be kept out of sight in unmarked cabinets or special vending machines with no visible logos.

In 2009 Cancer Research UK and its partner organisations successfully campaigned for a ban on tobacco displays in shops and the prohibition of tobacco vending machines in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Lawyers for the tobacco giant argued that the display ban was a breach of an EU free trade agreement, to which Norway is a signatory, despite not being an EU member.

The Oslo district court's ruling has been hailed as an important victory by anti-smoking campaign groups like Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

Robin Hewings, Cancer Research UK's tobacco policy manager, said: "Displaying cigarettes next to sweets and crisps makes tobacco seem like a normal part of everyday life rather than a deadly and addictive drug.

"The Norwegian court's decision is a decisive defeat for the tobacco companies' claims that policies to cut smoking are illegal.

"The strategy to intimidate governments from taking on the tobacco companies and delaying policies that are not in their interests isn't working."

While Philip Morris argued that there were other less intrusive steps that could be taken to lessen the health burden of smoking, the Oslo court called the display ban "necessary" and said other measures were less effective.

He added that the tobacco industry is likely to launch further lawsuits if EU nations decide to follow in the footsteps of Australia and introduce compulsory plain packaging for cigarettes. The UK Department of Health are considering the future of tobacco packaging after a four month public consultation on this issue.

Tobacco companies claim that mandatory plain packaging is illegal, but Mr Hewings said that independent legal experts have said the cigarette firms' case is weak.

"We expect Philip Morris' defeat on tobacco displays in shops will be followed by further defeats on plain packs," he added.

Philip Morris International now has a period of one month to decide whether to contest the ruling in one of Norway's higher courts.

Nordan Helland, spokesman for Philip Morris Norway, said: "We are disappointed with the court's decision and are considering our options for appeal."

Tobacco companies have a long history of using litigation to challenge government attempts to tax cigarettes and clamp down on smoking and smoking-related illnesses.

Philip Morris International has in recent years challenged marketing restrictions and health warnings in Uruguay via the courts, as well as contesting a ban on tobacco products in Irish shops.

Australia's highest court recently rejected a collective challenge by tobacco companies claiming their valuable trademarks will be worthless if they are no longer able to use their distinctive colours, brand designs and logos.

"This verdict sends a signal that it's possible to win over the mighty tobacco industry," said Karl Erik Lund, research director at the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, who testified as an expert witness for the state.

Copyright Press Association 2012