The latest win for Australia’s plain packaging laws spells the end of a decade-long legal battle with the tobacco industry and sets the stage for more countries to implement tobacco control measures.
On 9 June, the World Trade Organization (WTO) dismissed an appeal filed by the Dominican Republic and Honduras, upholding a 2018 WTO panel ruling that plain packaging does not infringe international trade or intellectual property laws.
WTO’s Appellate Body also confirmed the panel’s finding that Australia’s plain packaging laws are “apt to, and do in fact, contribute to Australia’s objective of reducing the use of, and exposure to, tobacco products.”
“This is an important ruling for Australia, and an enormous win for public health around the world,” says Suzanne Zhou, Acting Manager for Prevention at the McCabe Centre for Law & Cancer, which works with lawyers and policymakers worldwide on legal measures to prevent and control cancer.
“This decisive ruling confirms that plain packaging is consistent with international trade law, and will give countries the confidence they need to move ahead with evidence-based and effective public health policy despite threats of litigation.”
Plain packaging laws date back to 2011, when the Australian Government passed legislation requiring tobacco products be sold in drab, dark brown packaging without designs or logos and with large graphic health warnings. A review of plain packaging laws published in 2016 concluded that plain packaging was a major contributing factor to declining smoking rates and had resulted in 108,000 fewer smokers in the three-year period after implementation than would have been the case without plain packaging.
But pushback from the tobacco industry has been extensive. Four major multinational tobacco companies brought a constitutional challenge to Australia’s High Court, Phillip Morris Asia filed an investment treaty challenge, and four WTO member states brought a challenge through the organisation’s dispute settlement system with reported financial support from the tobacco industry.
Each ruling came back in favour of Australia’s plain packaging laws, and legal challenges to plain packaging in the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, and Norway were also dismissed. The tobacco industry’s longstanding strategy of using litigation to impede tobacco control policy has failed time and time again.
With the WTO dispute now settled, there is no pending legal action against Australia’s plain packaging laws.
“I’m proud of Australia for leading the way globally on plain packaging, and for the commitment of successive Australian governments to implement and defend these laws against legal threats,” says Todd Harper, CEO of Cancer Council Victoria.
Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia echoed Mr Harper’s sentiment, “Plain packaging was an initiative that saw many health policymakers, politicians and public health professionals working together to introduce the reforms. This win, coupled with the reduction we have seen in smoking rates in Australia is testament to this significant effort in changing the landscape, both in Australia and internationally.”
Despite the many legal challenges, at least 15 countries have followed Australia’s lead and implemented their own plain packaging laws, while many other countries are considering similar measures. WTO’s decisive ruling is expected to generate momentum for even more countries to adopt plain packaging.
“With this legal challenge now definitively resolved, governments around the world can focus on what plain packaging could mean for their country: reduced tobacco consumption leading to better health and fewer preventable deaths,” says McCabe Centre Acting Director Hayley Jones. “The McCabe Centre stands ready to support countries in implementing tobacco control measures and meeting international commitments on tobacco control and sustainable development.”
Read the full decision from the WTO Appellate Body.
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