Landmark World Trade Organization Ruling On Plain Tobacco Packaging Hailed As “Public Health Victory” By WHO
Photo Credit: Marco Verch

In what he described as a great “public health victory,” the World Trade Organization has ruled that Australia’s plain packaging requirements for tobacco products did not infringe on international trade, said the World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday.

The decision by the WTO on Tuesday comes just as it also opened nominations for the selection of its next Director General, following an earlier announcement by Roberto Azevedo that he would resign from his post on August 31st.

So far, three candidates have been formally nominated, including chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance’s Board Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Mexico’s chief negotiator for the ‘New NAFTA’, Jesús Seade Kuri; and former director of the Trade in Services Division of the WTO, Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh.

The decision on the case against Australia, the first country to introduce mandatory ‘plain packaging’ for tobacco products in 2012, was described as the final nail in the coffin of the tobacco industry’s nearly decade-long campaign against plain packaging, which has now completely run out of international avenues to appeal such laws.

This WTO ruling means the tobacco industry has run out of options to challenge plain packaging internationally,” said Dr Tedros in a press briefing.

The WTO decision upheld a 2018 ruling that Australia’s plain packaging laws did not violate WTO rules. That decision was appealed by Honduras and the Dominican Republic on behalf of a bloc of countries, leading to a final ruling on Tuesday that ended the international litigation against Australia.

“This is a fantastic win not just for Australia, but for governments around the world who want to reduce the terrible toll of sickness and death caused by smoking,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement released Wednesday.

Appellate Body Rules ‘Plain Packaging’ Laws Do Not Violate International Trade Agreements

Australia’s ‘plain packaging’ laws require the display of graphic public health warnings on tobacco products

An WTO Appellate Body ruled Tuesday that the bloc of countries opposing Australia’s laws “had not succeeded in establishing that Australia’s tobacco plain packaging measures are inconsistent with the provisions of the covered [trade] agreements at issue.” 

Therefore, the committee made no recommendations to change Australia’s plain packaging laws.

“This WTO ruling reaffirms that this legislation is within the international trade rules,” said Australia’s Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

Australia’s precedent-setting ‘plain packaging’  law for tobacco products, adopted in 2012, bars tobacco packaging from using prominent logos or promotional text, and requires the display of graphic public health warnings.

The WHO has said that there is evidence that such packaging, combined with other interventions recommended by the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), helps reduce demand for tobacco products. Smoking is a leading risk factor of deadly non-communicable diseases like heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). 

Other countries that have since adopted similar ‘plain packaging laws,’ include France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Singapore, New Zealand, and more are now in the process of introducing such laws.

Honduras first submitted a request to the WTO to challenge the Australian laws in April 2012, under the claim that the ‘plain packaging’ requirements put up barriers to international trade as outlined under the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS Agreement) and the corresponding Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement. 

Image Credits: Flickr: Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker, Twitter: @FCTCofficial.