WHO Hopes For “Domino Effect” Of Australian Ruling In Favour Of Tobacco Plain Packaging

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The director of the World Health Organization, the global public health body, today vigorously applauded the ruling by Australia’s high court upholding the Australian government’s upcoming ban on trademarked labels on tobacco packages. The case pits international trade interests against public health interests, and the WHO said it hopes today’s ruling will have a “domino effect” for many other countries considering such bans.

“Several major tobacco companies challenged Australia’s legislation to require cigarettes and other tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging without any branding,” WHO Director General Margaret Chan said in a release. “But the industry’s attempt to derail this effective tobacco control measure failed.”

“The lawsuits filed by Big Tobacco look like the death throes of a desperate industry,” Chan said. “With so many countries lined up to ride on Australia’s coattails, what we hope to see is a domino effect for the good of public health.”

Starting in December, all tobacco products will be required to be sold in Australia in drab, olive-green packaging without branding, WHO said.

The High Court of Australia’s 15 August decision is available here [pdf] or here [rtf]. The court said its reasons for the decision will be published “at a later date.”

British American Tobacco issued a response criticising the decision. BAT readily acknowledged the public health risk of its products, but said the ruling will strip companies of their intellectual property rights. It also said the ruling focussed only on a specific Australian constitutional question, and that it was not evidence-based and will lead to greater problems.

“[P]lain packaging would only exacerbate an already significant illicit tobacco trafficking problem, and would have other significant adverse unintended consequences including driving down prices which would lead to increased smoking while reducing government tax revenue,” BAT said.

The industry will look to its other legal attacks on the Australian action, including cases filed at the World Trade Organization.

“[T]his decision is wholly separate from the various other investment and trade-related disputes which Australia is currently facing as a result of introducing the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act,” BAT said. “These include Australia’s World Trade Organisation dispute with Honduras, Dominican Republic and Ukraine, and the claim Australia is facing for breaching its Bilateral Investment Treaty with Hong Kong.”

Related IP-Watch articles are available here.

WHO said the decision was based on evidence and that tobacco use “is one of the most preventable public health threats.”

“Tobacco products will eventually kill up to half of the people who use them – that means nearly 6 million people die each year. If governments do not take strong action to limit exposures to tobacco, by 2030 it could kill more than 8 million people each year.”

“With Australia’s victory, public health enters a brave new world of tobacco control,” WHO said. “Plain packaging is a highly effective way to counter industry’s ruthless marketing tactics. It is also fully in line with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”

The Australian government website on plain tobacco packaging is here.

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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