A tobacco giant's legal action against the Australian government over its plan to introduce plain cigarette packages is all about politics and PR and has little substance, according to a New Zealand public health researcher.
Philip Morris has launched an action suggesting Australia's Federal Government is effectively planning to steal the company's brand in contravention of a bilateral investment treaty Australia signed with Hong Kong 20 years ago.
But public health researcher George Thomson, who has been following big tobacco's tactics for some time, says the history of threats by tobacco companies is that they are just threats with very little substance.
Thomson told TV ONE's Breakfast today there's very little to this case and it might not go to court.
Thomson said Philip Morris has been suing the Uruguay government for a couple of years in a similar case "but basically this is about politics and PR, not law".
He said Philip Morris is worried about losing brands. "They would still have the words, the brand name. But losing everything else would be absolutely huge. But it's either health or brands, and in this case Australia has chosen health," he said.
Thomson said if the Australian government passes legislation requiring plain packaging there will be little anybody can do despite the existence of treaties, something that has been shown in previous tobacco cases.
"Legislation trumps court cases pretty well every time."
He said there is experimental evidence to show that plain packaging stops people smoking.
"Of course the best evidence is that the tobacco companies don't like it. I mean every time, if tobacco companies scream then you know you're on to a really good thing for health."
Thomson said while Philip Morris makes most of its money in third world countries, it's taking the action against Australia to try to stop the idea of plain packaging spreading.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said Labor is not about to be intimidated by big tobacco.
"We're going to deliver cigarette packages in that drab green with no logos," she said yesterday. "We're very confident of our position."
Philip Morris spokeswoman Anne Edwards is equally convinced the cigarette maker has "an extremely strong case".
She said if plain packaging is introduced companies should be compensated.
"By attempting to take our company property (brand) ... it's a very, very clear violation of the investment treaty that Australia has with Hong Kong," Edwards said.
The Labor Party's draft law could be introduced to parliament in Canberra as early as next week.