Norway fights legal challenge from international tobacco giant

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Norwegian authorities started defending themselves in an Oslo court this week against a challenge to their law that prevents the public display of tobacco products for sale. They’re up again the US-based tobacco giant Philip Morris, which claims the Norwegian law hinders free trade of a legal product.

Norway has among the highest taxes on tobacco products and the strictest anti-smoking regulations in the world. The country has banned advertising of tobacco products for years and on January 1, 2010, all tobacco products were also ordered out of public sight in grocery stores, kiosks and other retail establishments selling such items as cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. Only a few concessions have been evaluated or made, for specialty shops out of consideration for historic preservation.

Cumbersome purchase procedures
Smokers in Norway thus needed to start requesting which tobacco product they wanted and then buy  a plastic card at a check out counter, costing nearly NOK 100 (USD 17), that allows the purchase of a pack of 20 cigarettes. The card can then be used at an anonymous tobacco product dispenser generally located beyond the check-out area.

Tobacco producers immediately objected and Philip Morris, citing the rights of businesses to display their legal products for sale, not least on store shelves, started mounting legal challenges. A court for the European Free Trade Association failed to produce a conclusion in the case last fall, offering only an advisory ruling, and now Philip Morris’s lawsuit against the Norwegian government is underway in Oslo tingrett, the Oslo City Court.

“Philip Morris supports strict regulation of tobacco, but we want the display prohibition to be lifted because it doesn’t serve its purpose,” Nordan Helland, communications director for Philip Morris Norge, told Oslo-based newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. “We believe the display of legal products on store shelves should be allowed, not least with regards to competition and potential for launching new products.”

He stresses the rights of businesses to display their wares in a legal market while also arguing that Norwegian authorities should rather do a better job of enforcing age requirements for purchase of tobacco and cracking down on cigarette smuggling into Norway. “A cigarette smuggler never asks to see a buyer’s ID;” Helland noted.

Consumption conflict
Philip Morris lawyers also claim that the Norwegian law has not led to reduced consumption of tobacco products, and that the state has so far failed to produce evidence showing positive health effects of its display ban.

Norwegian officials disagree, arguing that their ban on tobacco product display must be preserved to make tobacco less visible and even less accessible than it already was. The ban, they claim, is an important means of preventing children and youth from starting to use tobacco.

“This is an important issue for us because it’s all about the public health, and people’s health must be more important than the tobacco industry’s profit interests,” Ragnhld Mathisen, state secretary in the state health ministry, told Dagsavisen.

Mathisen also claimed that “reducing accessibility reduces consumption” and that the state will be able to provide evidence of reduced consumption based on research supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Norwegian Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen has also teamed up with five other countries with similar bans “to share information, cooperate and support each other in the legal challenges underway,” she told newspaper Aftenposten last month. The lawsuit in Oslo is expected to run until early next week.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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