Smoke signals

Grad student Eric Crosbie's research delves into cigarette packaging and why some countries have been able to legislate tobacco warning labels while others haven't

Eric Crosbie, 32, a fourth-year graduate student in politics, has always been interested i

Eric Crosbie, 32, a fourth-year graduate student in politics, has always been interested in how corporations impact policy-making.

An example of “plain packaging,” which prohibits tobacco-company logos, limits brand names

An example of “plain packaging,” which prohibits tobacco-company logos, limits brand names to small, standardized type, and requires large health-warning images and text on cigarette packages. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

UC Santa Cruz grad student Eric Crosbie reaches into his messenger bag and pulls out two cigarette cartons. One label pictures a set of gangrenous toes, another a gnarly-looking eyeball.

Those packages, designed to warn consumers about the health hazards of smoking, are at the heart of Crosbie’s research.

Why does a tobacco company’s vow to sue countries that legislate these kinds of cigarette labels stop their use in one country but not in another?

The answer, says Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine and director of UC San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, “is a very hot area in global public health and has implications way beyond tobacco.”

Crosbie, 32, a fourth-year graduate student in politics, is animated as he describes his current research. Always interested in how corporations impact policy-making, he came into the world of tobacco control after getting a job with Glantz at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. Later, he was drawn to UC Santa Cruz because of its interdisciplinary approach.

A tenacious researcher—Crosbie once returned four times to the same government office in an attempt to secure an interview—he began to look into tobacco companies’ legal actions against “plain packaging” laws in Australia, New Zealand, and Uruguay. Plain packaging laws ban tobacco-company logos, limit brand names to small, standardized type, and require large health-warning images and text on cigarette packages.

In 2011, Crosbie says, Australia passed a plain-packaging law and tobacco giant Philip Morris International quickly sued. It charged that Australia had to compensate the company because it had taken away its branding and logo. The corporation, Crosbie says, used a bilateral trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong as a basis for the suit, which allowed a corporation to sue a government over alleged trademark seizure. Under the U.S.-Australia trade agreement, the company could not file suit against a government.

In addition, five countries—Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, and Cuba—also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against Australia’s cigarette packaging laws, says Crosbie. Reports from Reuters and Bloomberg News on the case said Philip Morris was covering some legal costs for the Dominican Republic while British American Tobacco Plc. was doing the same for Ukraine and Honduras.

For Crosbie the question was: Why did Australia and the small country of Uruguay stand up to these legal challenges while New Zealand dropped its proposed plain-packaging regulations in the face of what it believed would be a protracted and expensive legal fight?

Digging through archives, poring over online documents, and interviewing officials in each of the three countries, Crosbie says his research shows a trio of reasons.

Comparing two similar countries, Australia and New Zealand, Crosbie says he found that government ideology is important. In Australia, the government was center-left while New Zealand was governed by a center-right party.

In addition, bureaucratic leadership influenced the response to a legal threat. Australia’s health minister, for instance, was “a bold, strong, and courageous” lawyer, Crosbie says. New Zealand’s health minister, by contrast, was strong but came from a minority party that was part of a coalition government and thus had less power.

The third component was health advocacy, Crosbie found. In Australia, health advocates were funded independently. In New Zealand, those organizations were subsidized by the government “so they are constrained in what they can say,” Crosbie says.

Crosbie’s findings, says Glantz, “are going to have a lot of impact in terms of leading to a more rational policy-making process around these issues and also have implications around trade policies,” which may include so-called investor state dispute provisions that allow corporations to directly sue governments.

Sitting on a bench on Science Hill on the UC Santa Cruz campus, Crosbie says his findings are important because, with billions of dollars at stake, cigarette companies fear the domino effect of tobacco-control laws.

“For tobacco companies, threatening (to sue) a government is cheap,” Crosbie says, “and they have been doing it for decades.”

Meanwhile, Crosbie is headed back to UC San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education for a post-doc fellowship in June and, depending on the outcome of two upcoming court cases against Australia and Uruguay, may write a book based on his research.

He believes his investigation not only has policy implications for cigarette companies but also for labeling of products that may affect health, from alcohol to junk food. That’s why, he says, it’s important to look carefully at trade policies.

“If we don’t start paying attention to what happens domestically through the legislative process, you’re missing out on how these trade agreements affect policy,” he says.