09 May, 2017

Plainly Winning - Australia Wins Plain Packaging Challenge at the WTO

Plain packaging seems to be a nigh inevitability in the current legislative climate, especially with countries pushing for stricter laws surrounding cigarettes and their marketing. This blog has discussed the challenge against the Australian Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 in the WTO and in Asia (discussed here and here) by a number of countries, but the conclusion of those disputes has been coming for some years now. While similar initiatives have been introduced in a number of countries, including the UK, the disputes seem to have put a damper on those efforts, if nothing at least for the duration of the cases.

The WTO dispute (including others made by other nations) concerns the TPP Act 2011, which introduced measures to standardize tobacco product packaging, including changing the color to a boring olive green, and prominently displaying graphic warning labels. The arguments presented against the legislation were that it presents a technical barrier to trade under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (Articles 2.1 and 2.2), and infringing various provisions under the TRIPS Agreement, for example giving other Member countries more or less favorable treatment (Article 3.1) or creating an obstacle for the registration of a trademark due to the nature of the goods it is used for (Article 15.4). Finally, the Act allegedly gives imported products less favorable treatment under The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Article 3.4).

As discussed above, while the judgment hasn't been released yet, sources at the WTO have claimed that the WTO has sided with the Australian government's argument on the measure qualifying as a legitimate public health measure. The restriction of branding, therefore, does not infringe the above Agreements, and is appropriate for the aim sought by the legislation.

The details of the case will be discussed more when the decision is released in July, but it still remains an important signpost in the development of plain packaging legislation worldwide.

Without a doubt, the tobacco companies and the relevant countries will appeal the decision, as has been indicated by British American Tobacco.

'Quitting clearly had no benefits', Alan thought
According to the WTO, a barrier to trade would amount to, for example, any methods that would give domestically produced goods an unfair advantage. Additionally, countries have the prerogative to "...adopt the standards they consider appropriate — for example, for human, animal or plant life or health, for the protection of the environment or to meet other consumer interests". Even if the standards are brought in to protect these legitimate aims, they still cannot be "...applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail or a disguised restriction on international trade".

This writer does not claim to be a master of international trade law, but would argue that the application of a plain packaging standard to protect human life and health would not amount to a barrier on trade, as the standard would apply equally to Australian and foreign tobacco producers, and is clearly not an arbitrary or unjustifiable measure to do so. Plain packaging evens the playing field for all tobacco producers, but also seeks to stop the starting of a smoking habit, lowering the amounts of tobacco products used in that particular country (Australia showing a drop of 6% in smoking rates in adults, and the reduction of sales of tobacco products by nearly $500 million after the law's introduction).

In the end, plain packaging will be a hard fought, long battle, which will clearly go on for years to come. The tobacco industry is also in a state of transition from the old business models to new ones, including vape products, but the core remains the same and the brands equally valuable to that business. This writer is wholly for plain packaging, but its impact on IP will be a milestone for not just tobacco, but for other possibly harmful products in the future.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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