How far can lawmakers go to wipe out an addictive habit that's linked to thousands of deaths each year?
According to tobacco maker Philip Morris, the U.K. has crossed the line with a yet-to-be-implemented law that will put plain packaging on all cigarette boxes. While the logos of brands such as Philip Morris' Marlboro and Chesterfield would be covered up, graphic warnings about the detrimental health impact caused by smoking would be displayed.
Philip Morris on Friday filed a lawsuit in the English High Court seeking to overturn the plain packaging regulation, claiming that it violates English and European Union law by effectively banning the use of their trademarks in the U.K. Other tobacco makers including British American Tobacco, whose brands include Dunhill and Lucky Strike, are expected to follow suit, according to The Scotsman, which said the lawsuit could represent the biggest corporate compensation case ever against the U.K. and Scottish governments.
The tobacco companies are expected to seek as much as £11 billion, or $17.1 billion, in damages, according to The Scotsman.
"We respect the government's authority to regulate in the public interest, but wiping out trademarks simply goes too far," said Marc Firestone, senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "Countries around the world have shown that effective tobacco control can co-exist with respect for consumer freedoms and private property."
The plain packaging law was approved by British lawmakers earlier this year, and is slated to take effect in 2016.
The lawsuit marks just the latest efforts by tobacco companies to snub out regulations that put warnings on cigarette packaging or halt marketing to children.
Australia, which is the only country that currently mandates plain tobacco packaging, was targeted by Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and other cigarette makers, which used a variety of tactics to try to halt the 2011 law. In Australia, cigarette boxes feature messages in large letters such as "Smoking Kills," with graphic images of cancers and other illnesses caused by tobacco. The brand name appears in smaller type near the bottom of the box.
Philip Morris is currently challenging the law under an obscure 1993 Australia-Hong Kong investment treaty, arguing that the plain packaging law violates its Asian unit's investments in Australia. The company had reorganized its assets to become a Hong Kong investor in order to sue on those grounds, according to the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.
Big tobacco's tactics against government regulations to curb the consumption of cigarettes was recently highlighted by John Oliver in his HBO show "Last Week Tonight." His segment cited the Australian lawsuit and also noted that while cigarette consumption in developed countries is on the wane, marketing to young consumers across the world is going strong, including a global marketing campaign called "Be Marlboro."
The "Be Marlboro" campaign was found to target teens by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which called on Philip Morris International to end the campaign, which features young people partying and falling in love. Philip Morris said the campaign is "aimed exclusively at adult smokers."
Whatever the outcome of the legal challenges to the plain packaging laws, it's clear that the tobacco industry is doing something right by turning its attention to developing countries. A 2014 study found that smoking is on the rise in countries including China and Indonesia -- the first and fourth most populous countries, respectively -- with the number of men and women who smoke daily on a worldwide basis increasing to 967 million in 2012 from 721 million in 1980.