Branding battle is last throw of the dice for tobacco industry

As communications professionals, we place a high value on the concept of intellectual property and we do our best – always – to protect our clients’ investment in their corporate branding and identity.

We have worked for many years with Ireland’s newspaper industry, promoting a culture of copyright compliance and highlighting the damage caused by widespread, unauthorised commercial use of newspaper content. In matters of intellectual property, in other words, our views are generally black and white.

A new shade of grey has, however, come to light with the Japan Tobacco Group’s threat to sue the Irish Government over draft laws that would ban branded tobacco packaging. The company has objected to the proposed new regulations on various grounds, notably that plain packaging would infringe tobacco companies’ intellectual property rights.

Plain packaging legislation already exists in Australia, while a similar move in England has ended up in the European Court of Justice thanks to, you guessed it, a legal threat by the tobacco industry.

There is unlikely to be a resolution in this dispute any time soon. That’s partly because ‘Big Tobacco’ is an incredibly rich and influential lobby, with the resources to bring its fight to the very highest level of the legal system.

It’s also because branded packets represent the final frontier for tobacco marketing; the last few square inches of advertising space for the Japan Tobacco Group (JTI) and its ilk. It is therefore a customer recruitment tool they will cling to for as long as they can.

The obvious problem, from a branding perspective, is that tobacco does nothing but harm. In issuing its threat to the Irish Government, JTI pointed to the 100 or so people it employs in Ireland, and the €665 million it paid in taxes in 2013.

These figures, however, pale into insignificance when set against the casualties of tobacco; not only the 5000+ people who die in Ireland every year as a result of using tobacco, but the millions, billions, of euro it costs to treat smoking-related illnesses – money that could be put to far better use.

The word “using” is pertinent above. If you use tobacco the way it is supposed to be used – the way it is branded and marketed – it will absolutely and without doubt damage your health. Proven fact. Unlike almost any other product in the world, when it comes to tobacco, use equals abuse. How can anyone justify branding a product like that?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that intellectual property is a red herring in all of this. The Irish Government is trying to implement legislation in the interest of public health, and the tobacco industry is trying to stop it. Forget branding, this is about business. The industry is fighting for customers, not copyright.

The scientific/medical argument was lost a long time ago. The advertising debate went the same way. The branding battle may rumble on for some time yet but ultimately, it’s a fight that Big Tobacco is unlikely to win.

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Topics: advertising, Blog, branding, industry, packaging, marketing, tobacco

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