Australia wins landmark WTO dispute on tobacco packaging

Australia has won a landmark victory at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which found that the country’s stringent laws requiring plain packaging on tobacco products do not violate the country’s trade obligations.

The ruling could pave the way for other countries to pass similar laws. Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging laws in 2011, and several other nations have followed suit.

Honduras first brought the case to the WTO in 2012, arguing Australia’s laws on tobacco violated rules on intellectual property and an agreement requiring states not to put up barriers to trade.

Other tobacco exporting countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia followed shortly after.

In a joint statement, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo and Australian Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie called the decision a “resounding victory.”

“After years of robustly defending the tobacco plain packaging measure against multiple claims brought within multiple forums, the government welcomes the WTO decision,” they said. “This is the conclusion to these efforts to challenge Australia’s right to introduce legitimate measures to protect human health.”

Public health experts have long supported plain packaging laws as a way to reduce smoking rates, something which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is supported by a large body of research.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Thursday’s WTO ruling as a “big victory for tobacco control” that has the ability to save lives.

Tobacco companies and exporting countries have been quick to fight plain packaging laws in court, arguing they are not as effective as advertised and infringe on a companies right to market and brand their products.

Honduras indicated it would appeal the ruling, according to a statement obtained by Reuters. It claimed the WTO’s 800-plus page finding was not objective and contained a number of legal and factual errors.