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Uruguay becomes the first country to require plain packaging of tobacco products in Latin America

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In a landmark victory for tobacco control and public health, the government of Uruguay has introduced plain or standardised packaging of tobacco products

In a landmark victory for tobacco control and public health, the government of Uruguay has introduced plain or standardised packaging of tobacco products thanks to an executive decree issued by President Tabaré Vázquez.  Plain packaging is proven to discourage people from taking up tobacco use, and is particularly effective for children and young people.

The tobacco industry will have six months to implement the new regulation, which requires a uniform presentation for all tobacco packs, including standard lettering and brown colour, and no branding elements, such as corporate logos and trademarks. Health warnings will continue to take up 80 percent of the total surface.

Uruguay has become the first country to require plain packaging in Latin America. It now also has the world’s most comprehensive restrictions on tobacco branding --by coupling plain packaging and ‘single presentation’ regulations. The latter means that tobacco companies can only sell one variant within their brand family.

The Union has given full technical and legal support to this initiative, with funding from the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use (BI). This helped the government of Uruguay to build a solid evidence base, including a legal study of plain packaging legislation in other countries and an experimental study showing that the proposed plain packaging design increased the risk perception of tobacco products among current Uruguayan smokers.

Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging in 2012. France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Norway, and Ireland followed in 2017 and 2018. Canada passed similar legislation earlier this year. In June 2018, the World Trade Organization ruled in favour of Australia’s pioneering law and dismissed a complaint from tobacco producing countries who claimed that plain packaging hampered free trade. The ruling paved the way for Uruguay’s new policy. Plain packaging initiatives are also under legislative review in Brazil and Chile, supported by The Union through BI funding. Panama and Ecuador are also considering proposals for plain packaging policies.r

Sustained tobacco control leadership

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, Uruguay had a smoking rate of nearly 22 percent in 2017. This reflected a dramatic drop since 2006, when almost 40 percent of adults smoked. That same year President Vázquez, in his first tenure, launched a pioneering set of tobacco control measures, including 100 percent smoke-free public places; large health warnings; and a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. In 2017, the current Vázquez administration extended the indoor ban on smoking to e-cigarettes and similar products.

In July 2016, Uruguay won a six-year legal battle launched by Philip Morris International (PMI) before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). PMI argued that graphic health warnings covering 80 percent of the surface area of tobacco packaging, and limiting each brand to just one variant (for example, only one presentation of Marlboro cigarettes, and not Marlboro Red, Light, or Blue), contravened trademark and investment protections. The ICSID ruling rejected all their claims.

Earlier this year, President Vázquez received the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General’s Special Recognition Award on World No Tobacco Day. The award acknowledged his achievements scaling-up tobacco control efforts in accordance with the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

The Union has worked with Uruguay since 2014 with BI funding, offering technical assistance to further tobacco control policies, improve enforcement and evaluate policy impact. Together with the newly enacted plain packaging legislation, a five-year strategic tobacco control plan to guide government actions, and an updated implementation manual for health inspectors, resulted from this collaboration.