World Trade Organization rules in favour of Australia’s plain packaging laws for tobacco

Big Tobacco simply won’t quit. After years and years and years of getting their asses absolutely handed to them in court after court about Australia’s plain packaging laws … they lose yet again.

Big Tobacco, primarily in the form of Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, has been battling Australia for more than seven years over that country’s plain packaging rules. First, they sued in Australian courts and their case went all the way to the Australian Supreme Court, where they lost.

After they lost in the Australian courts, Big Tobacco, hiding behind Hong Kong and Ukraine and other countries, tried to claim that somehow Australia was violating trade treaties (lots here on John Oliver’s show) because international tobacco companies weren’t being allowed to market their products in Australia. That tact has taken several forms, the latest being litigation through the World Trade Organization, which…

… just this week leaked a draft ruling on the side of Australia. Meaning that Australia’s groundbreaking plain packaging laws, which allow no trademarked logos on cigarette packs and require gruesome images of tobacco-caused diseases, can move forward.

Australia was the first to require such plain packages, but several other countries such as France and the U.K. have followed suit, with the almost automatic litigation from tobacco companies.

This is the latest salvo in the industry’s battle against Australia, which is one of the most progressive nations in the world in battling tobacco. I doubt it will be the last.

From a Guardian article:

The news is a blow to the tobacco industry as such a ruling from the WTO has been widely anticipated as giving a green light for other countries to roll out similar laws.

Australia’s laws go much further than advertising bans and graphic health warnings enforced in many other countries.

The rules, introduced in 2010, ban logos and distinctive-coloured cigarette packaging in favour of drab olive packets that look more like military or prison issue, with brand names printed in small, standardised fonts.

Tobacco firms said their trademarks were being infringed, and Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Indonesia complained at the WTO that the rules constituted an illegal barrier to trade.

Although the WTO’s final ruling is not expected until July, a confidential draft said Australia’s laws were a legitimate public health measure, Bloomberg reported.

Of the biggest international cigarette companies, Imperial Brands’ profits are most exposed to markets that may implement plain packaging, said analysts at Jefferies.

A spokeswoman for British American declined to comment on the ruling until it was made public, but suggested the complainants would keep fighting.

“As there is a high likelihood of an appeal by some or all of the parties, it’s important to note that this panel report is not the final word on whether plain packaging is consistent with international law,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Japan Tobacco also declined to comment on the ruling, but said the fact that the draft had been leaked was disconcerting and a breach of WTO rules.

“Such breaches completely undermine the integrity of the process, which has not yet run its full course,” she said.

The plodding pace of WTO decision-making prompted Australia, which had the backing of the World Health Organisation, to complain that its challengers were deliberately stalling the proceedings, producing a “regulatory chilling” effect on other countries wishing to follow its example.

But since the challenge was made, many other countries began exploring similar legislation, a sign that they expected the WTO to rule in Australia’s favour.

Britain, France and Hungary have gone ahead with their own legislation, while Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Belgium are among those considering it.

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