When someone buys a pack of cigarettes in some countries, the consumer doesn’t see the brand’s logo plastered across the front. Instead, he or she sees something called “plain packaging” that is meant to deter people from the buying the product.

It’s controversial because companies say it infringes on their rights to brand products and intellectual property. But governments say it’s a necessary step for public health.

The World Trade Organization is expected to rule soon on whether plain packaging contravenes agreements to protect intellectual property.

If plain packaging is ruled to infringe on intellectual property, it could lead to appeals in the UK, Ireland and France to overturn the recent laws which came into force, says Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). And that could lead to a domino effect of other countries across Europe adopting similar laws.

It’s time for food and beverage companies to start paying attention, because if it can be done to cigarettes, then it’s only a matter of time until it can be used on alcohol and even confectionery.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Snowdon says. “There is an exception for anything to do with public health. In the normal course of events, it’s a question of whether it will actually provide some public health benefits, so it could extend to other products. If the WTO rules that this is legal, candy and alcohol and gambling could be next.”

Last year, the International Trademark Association (INTA) passed a resolution calling for the rejection of plain packaging laws, saying they violate various international treaties and national laws.

INTA’s resolution warned that plain packaging could lead to a domino effect. They say that encouraging similar restrictions in other countries could lead to “an expanding list of categories of products,” e.g., alcohol, pharmaceuticals, confectionery, foods and beverages.

Examples of such can already be seen in Indonesia, which has proposed extending plain packaging on alcohol.

However, it creates a sticky situation for candy companies, who may see the possible domino effects but also probably don’t want to be lumped in with products like tobacco and alcohol, Snowdon explains.

Mars made a comment about this about a year or two ago,” he says. “[But] they don’t want to be considered akin to tobacco. I doubt they would ever stand shoulder to shoulder with the tobacco industry.”

In the end, Snowdon hopes the WTO won’t allow plain packaging.

“It degrades branding,” he says. “Branding, at the end of the day, is the consumer’s guarantee, and there is a slippery slope.”

For more information:

Institute of Economic Affairs, 020 7799 8900, www.iea.org.uk