Plain Packaging for Tobacco – WTO likely to uphold Australia’s Law

Australia was the world leader in making plain packaging compulsory for tobacco products about 5 years ago.  Several tobacco producing countries, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia and Ukraine, challenged Australia’s plain packaging legislation by taking action at the World Trade Organization (WTO), asserting that the legislation breaches Australia’s international obligations, including the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Current Status of Challenge to WTO

Although the WTO decision on the challenge is not expected until July 2017, recent reports suggest that WTO’s dispute resolution body is likely to uphold Australia’s plain packaging legislation on the basis that it is justified for public health concerns.

Implications for Other Countries

Following Australia’s lead, several other countries, including UK, France, Ireland, Hungary and New Zealand, have followed suit by introducing tobacco plain packaging legislation.

In the event that the challenge to the WTO is upheld, those other countries that have introduced or are likely to introduce, plain packaging legislation would have to reverse or hold off their laws or proposed laws.  This, however, now appears unlikely.

Ramifications for Other Products and Services Such as Food and Beverages

If Australia’s plain packaging laws are held by WIPO to be justified on the basis of public health, this could have ramifications for other products which have adverse health effects, such as alcoholic beverages.

Some states of Australia, such as New South Wales, have already made attempts to introduce legislation that seeks to place strict prohibitions on the advertising of alcohol.  If the challenge to tobacco plain packaging is dismissed by WTO, this could lead to the Australian Federal Government attempting to introduce legislation for plain packaging of alcoholic beverages. However, the wine industry is an important part of the Australian economy, and any proposals to introduce such legislation would face very stiff opposition from many Australian and international alcohol producing companies.