Global Tobacco Control Updates

Tobacco Industry Tactic: Using Trade Law to Stop Governments from Enacting Strong Health Warning Labels
18 Dec 2012
Research Alert

A new study published in Tobacco Control reveals that tobacco companies have consistently manipulated the interpretation of domestic trademark laws and international trade and intellectual property treaties to prevent government action to adopt effective health warnings on tobacco packaging. Findings are based on analyses of approximately 300 internal tobacco industry documents released from U.S. litigation settlements and posted online at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

Key Findings

  • Since the early 1990s tobacco companies have inaccurately and deceptively argued that large health warnings and plain packaging policies infringe on intellectual property rights and the ability to use their trademark packaging.
  • The major tobacco companies received legal advice from multiple sources over several years that national governments could in fact restrict and even prohibit the use of trademarks under international treaties by enacting strong health warnings and plain packaging.
  • Despite many legal opinions to the contrary, tobacco companies and their allies misled the public and policymakers by claiming that these measures violated international treaties protecting intellectual property, which effectively deterred governments from acting.
  • When legal advice did not support industry claims that strong health warnings violated international treaties, the tobacco industry created its own body of evidence that it could cite when lobbying policy makers and use in public.

Key Messages:

  • Health warning labels on tobacco products are effective means of informing consumers about the health harms of tobacco use. Large and graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging and plain packaging counter tobacco industry advertising on products, increase knowledge about risks associated with tobacco use, reduce adolescents’ intentions to smoke, and motivate smokers to quit.
  • Governments should not be intimidated by tobacco company threats and unsubstantiated claims that strong health warning laws violate international trade and intellectually property treaties.
  • Under international intellectually property treaties, governments do have the ability to restrict the use of tobacco company trademarks by enacting strong health warnings and plain packaging policies that protect public health.

Additional Resources:

Full citation:

Crosbie E, Glantz SA. Tobacco industry argues domestic trademark laws and international treaties preclude cigarette health warning labels, despite consistent legal advice that the argument is invalid. Tobacco Control. 2012 Nov 24.

A link to the article abstract [English only] can be found at:

Tobacco Control is an internationally peer-reviewed journal covering the nature and consequences of tobacco use worldwide. The journal is for health professionals and others in tobacco control and is a publication of the British Medical Journal.

If you have questions about the study or how to use it in your advocacy efforts, please email


graphic warning labels, illicit trade, plain packaging, tobacco industry