Tobacco giant takes Norway to court
March 9, 2010
A new law in Norway that forces retail outlets to hide tobacco products from public view now faces a major legal challenge from the world’s largest tobacco company. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reports that US-based Philip Morris is filing suit against the Norwegian state, to force it to prove the law’s alleged health benefits.
Norwegian politicians approved the law banning display of tobacco products on the grounds it would discourage smoking and promote better public health. All grocery stores, kiosks and other retail outlets selling tobacco products were forced to remove them from public view.
That meant customers must ask cashiers for the specific brand of cigarettes or other tobacco products that they want, while retailers were forced to invest an estimated NOK 500 million nationwide on new systems for selling tobacco. Most have bought large, anonymous machines that dispense packages of cigarettes, for example, after a customer has purchased a card that allows the machine to work.
Burden of proof on the state
Philip Morris claims such restrictions violate European trade and competition regulations, but realizes that individual states can undermine such regulations in the interest of public health. That’s why Philip Morris is suing.
“The state carries the burden of proof, and this is where Philip Morris and the state disagree,” the company’s Norwegian lawyer, Jan Magne Juuhl-Langseth, told DN. He said Philip Morris wants to determine whether the ban “really has a health effect,” or whether it’s based simply on “political correctness with no effect.”
Anne Edwards of Philip Morris International told DN that there’s no scientific evidence that the law has an effect on health. She noted that a similar law was introduced in Iceland in 2001, and “nothing” suggests it has encouraged people to stop smoking. Nor have other bans in some parts of Canada, Australia and Ireland, and Philip Morris is also filing suit against Irish authorities.
A court ruling is also being sought since other European countries are considering similar bans. Philip Morris planned to file suit in the Oslo city court (Tingrett), but Juuhl-Langseth hopes the case will be referred to the European (EFTA) court handing free trade issues.
Norway’s health ministry, responsible for carrying out the law banning display of tobacco products, claims it’s functioning well and that judicial questions were considered before its enactment. Health Director Bjørn-Inge Larsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the very fact Philip Morris is suing indicates that it’s worried about lower sales, “which itself shows the law is having its desired effect.”
Retailers, however, think the law is “pure nonsense” and expensive, according to HSH, the trade association representing them. One smoker told DN that he agrees. “This is a complete waste of time and resources,” he said. “And I smoke just as many cigarettes as I did before.”