GGTC applauds WTO’s reaffirmation of Australia’s plain packaging

Last June 9, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reaffirmed Australia’s plain packaging laws which require the tobacco industry to use generic text in drab plain cigarette packs with large graphic warnings. WTO’s Appellate Body rejected arguments that these are “more trade-restrictive than necessary for achieving that public health objective”; and that plain packaging does not “unjustifiably encumber by special requirements.” 

“Tobacco kills 8 million people annually and plain packaging is a cost-effective tobacco control measure that saves lives. This public health victory shows us that in public health, the implementation of WHO FCTC can be a shining light in times of sorrow,” says Ms. Bungon Ritthiphakdee, executive director of the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control.

The WHO and WHO FCTC Secretariat provided technical support by submitting inputs through a joint amicus brief that added to a handful of friendly non-party submissions. A record of 36 entities provided arguments that echo tobacco industry’s claims were attached as exhibits of complainants Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Indonesia. 

“We congratulate and thank the government of Australia in paving the way for standardized packaging across the world. We also celebrate with many supportive governments, the WHO, WHO FCTC Secretariat, and civil society who worked together to overcome tobacco industry’s multifarious schemes throughout the proceedings,” added Ms. Ritthiphakdee.

On June 10, both the WHO and the WHO FCTC Secretariat celebrated the public health victory with the WHO Director-General congratulating Australia, stating that “Although COVID-19 is giving us many reasons to grieve, today we’re also celebrating a public health victory. The tobacco industry has done everything it can to have these (plain packaging) laws overturned, including challenging them at the WTO. Effectively, yesterday’s WTO ruling means the tobacco industry has run out of options to challenge plain packaging internationally.” The Australian Minister of Health considers this “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.” Fifteen countries have adopted similar legislation, and several others are planning the same.

The decision concludes the dispute that began in 2012 when Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, and Ukraine initiated proceedings to challenge Australia’s legislation. Ukraine withdrew its complaint in 2015 and a WTO Panel decision that was favorable to Australia was appealed in June 2018.

“Along with many public health organizations, we believe that strengthening the implementation of the tobacco control treaty will continue to provide the planet with reasons to celebrate despite COVID-19. Just to cite an example, COVID-19 recovery efforts can benefit from tobacco taxes and surcharges that can reduce tobacco use.” added Ms. Ritthiphakdee.

GGTC is designated as the WHO FCTC Secretariat’s Knowledge Hub for Article 5.3 and in June 8, it co-hosted with STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog, a webinar on “Countering Tobacco Industry Interference in the time of COVID-19.” The webinar focused on tobacco control measures in COVID-19 responses that would allow governments to emerge on the path of sustainable development.

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