The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is an evidence based, legally binding multilateral treaty with 180 parties and is one of the most widely ratified treaties in the UN system. Its purpose is to ‘protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco use and exposure from tobacco smoke’ (WHO FCTC Article 3).

The aims and objectives of plain packaging are drawn from the evidence base that supports the policy and the context of recommendations in the WHO FCTC.

1. Article 11 Packaging and Labelling of Tobacco Products

Article 11 obliges Parties to implement effective measures to ensure that tobacco packaging and labelling do not promote tobacco products by means that are false, misleading or deceptive (Article 11.1(a)) and to ensure that tobacco packaging carries health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use (Article 11.1(b)).

The evidence clearly demonstrates that plain packaging:

  • Is an effective measure to address misleading and deceptive packaging.
  • Increases the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings.

Paragraph 46 of the Guidelines for the implementation of Article 11 states:

Parties should consider adopting measures to restrict or prohibit the use of logos, colors, brand images or promotional information on packaging other than brand names and product names displayed in a standard colour and font style (plain packaging). This may increase the noticeability and effectiveness of health warnings and messages, prevent the package from detracting attention from them, and address industry package design techniques that may suggest that some products are less harmful than others.

This passage is set out in a broader context of other packaging and labelling measures, which reinforces the recommendation that plain packaging is adopted in addition to (not as an alternative to) other measures including large pictorial health warnings.

2. Article 13 Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship

Article 13 obliges Parties to undertake a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. The phrase “tobacco advertising and promotion” is defined in Article 1(c) as “any form of commercial communication, recommendation or action with the aim, effect or likely effect of promoting a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly.”

Evidence demonstrates that branding on tobacco packaging acts as a form of advertising and promotion. The research evidence is also clear that plain packaging will act to:

  • Eliminate the effects of tobacco packaging as a form of advertising and promotion
  • Reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products.

The Guidelines for Implementation of Article 13 recommend that Parties consider implementing plain packaging. Paragraph 15, 16 and 17 state:

  1. Packaging is an important element of advertising and promotion. Tobacco pack or product features are used in various ways to attract consumers, to promote products and to cultivate and promote brand identity, for example by using logos, colours, fonts, pictures, shapes and materials on or in packs or on individual cigarettes or other tobacco products.
  2. The effect of advertising or promotion on packaging can be eliminated by requiring plain packaging: black and white or two other contrasting colours, as prescribed by national authorities; nothing other than a brand name, a product name and/or manufacturer’s name, contact details and the quantity of product in the packaging,without any logos or other features apart from health warnings, tax stamps and other government-mandated information or markings; prescribed font style and size; and standardized shape, size and materials. There should be no advertising or promotion inside or attached to the package or on individual cigarettes or other tobacco products.
  3. Packaging and product design are important elements of advertising and promotion. Parties should consider adopting plain packaging requirements to eliminate the effects of advertising or promotion on packaging. Packaging, individual cigarettes or other tobacco products should carry no advertising or promotion, including design features that make products attractive.

3. The Status and Legal Weight of the WHO FCTC

The tobacco companies argue that as a framework convention, the WHO FCTC limits itself to the formulation of broad principle objectives and leaves the elaboration of more detailed substantive rules to later steps at international and domestic levels.

The FCTC knowledge hub contains important information about the status of the WHO FCTC and how it has assisted countries defend their tobacco control laws in the courts, which can assist in countering these tobacco industry arguments.