EU uneasy with plain packaging

THE European Union has raised concerns about moves to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, at World Trade Organisation forums in Geneva.

The EU’s concerns came to light as tobacco giant Philip Morris yesterday launched a legal challenge to the Gillard government’s plan to introduce plain packaging, as revealed in The Australian yesterday. The court case exposes taxpayers to potential compensation claims independently estimated to run as high as $3 billion.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon has said the European Union was “looking closely” at plain packaging “and has encouraged us in going down this path”. But The Australian understands the EU expressed concerns about the measure at the most recent meeting of the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade committee.

There are fears plain packaging contravenes the international intellectual property legal framework by placing restrictions on the use of trademarks.

The Australian understands the EU raised questions about the scientific data considered in preparing the policy, the impact assessment process and other alternatives to stop smoking. It is also understood the EU asked how Australia had taken into consideration its obligations under other WTO treaties such as the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPs, the cornerstone of the international intellectual property regime.

Opposition trade spokeswoman Julie Bishop called on Trade Minister Craig Emerson to show the government was complying with TRIPs and other treaties with its plain-packaging plans.

“He must guarantee that not only will this plain packaging legislation be compliant with our international obligations but that he has obtained specific legal advice to that effect,” Ms Bishop said.

“Given Labor’s lack of credibility on this issue, as it continues to solicit donations from tobacco companies, I want to see actual evidence of the advice as we cannot just take Labor’s word for it.”

Dr Emerson justified the government’s stand in response to queries from the International Chamber of Commerce and the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. “Australia’s plain packaging policy is entirely consistent with our international obligations,” Dr Emerson says in the letters obtained by The Australian.

“As a member of the World Trade Organisation, Australia has the right to take measure necessary to protect public health. These measures will be implemented in a way that is consistent with our intellectual property, trade and investment obligations.”

Ms Roxon said yesterday the government had taken legal advice before introducing the new laws and believed it was on “very strong” legal ground in introducing plain packaging of cigarettes.

The Health Minister refused to answer questions about the size of the legal budget the government has set aside to cover the cost of challenges brought by the tobacco industry. When asked whether lawyers would be the biggest winners out of plain packaging laws, Ms Roxon said: “I think the public stand to be the biggest winners out of this measure.”

By Christian Kerr and Sue Dunlevy
The Australian

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