‘Crushing defeat’ for tobacco giant

An Oslo City Court verdict that upholds a Norwegian law banning the display of tobacco products in retail outlets was widely applauded by state health authorities and the country’s cancer association. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, which challenged the law, was far from satisfied after its first round in court.

“It was a massive victory for the state and a crushing defeat for Philip Morris Norge,” law professor Fredrik Sejersted told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend. He said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict from Oslo Tingrett.

‘Double victory’
“The state won a double victory,” Sejersted told DN. “The ban on exposure wasn’t viewed as a restriction of trade, and if it was, (the court ruled) it would be legitimate.”

The court verdict upheld the law, approved by Parliament in the winter of 2009, that demands retailers to literally hide tobacco products in plain, unmarked cabinets at the check-out counter, or in anonymous vending machines. Customers wanting to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products must ask specifically for them before paying the punitive taxes imposed on them. A pack of cigarettes now costs the equivalent of around USD 14 in Norway.

Philip Morris sued the state in 2010, claiming the law imposed an unfair hindrance to free movement of products within the European Economic Area, without it offering any evidence of health benefits. The tobacco firm also argued that the law illegally restricted competition. The Norwegian trade association representing retailers had also opposed the law, not least because it cost their retailers an estimated NOK 500 million to remodel their stores to make all the changes needed to keep selling tobacco. The Conservative, Liberal and Progress parties had also opposed the law.

Philip Morris lost its case, however, and is now considering an appeal. Health advocates, on the other hand, were jubilant.

‘Very important verdict’
“This is a very important verdict because the (tobacco) industry is steadily filing lawsuits on the grounds of various trade agreements,” Anne Lise Ryel, secretary general of the Norwegian cancer association Kreftforening, told newspaper Aftenposten. “Therefore, this verdict may have an impact in other countries. It shows that important measures to preserve the public health are not at odds with free competition.” Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen also hailed the verdict

The court ruled that the ban against displaying tobacco products in stores was necessary because no other alternatives would yield the same result. “It is a central goal for the authorities that the fewest young people start smoking, to avoid them becoming addicted to tobacco in the future,” the court ruled. The absence of tobacco products on display in stores, according to the court, helps avoid the advertising effect and is part of making smoking “abnormal.”

Nordan Helland, a spokesman for Philip Morris Norge, said the company would now study the verdict and evaluate an appeal. Helland claimed overall consumption of tobacco products in Norway is unchanged since the law went into force and that tobacco smuggling has increased.

“We still believe that the ban on display does not offer any health benefits, and that it should be allowed to display legal products in Norway,” Helland said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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