Big tobacco to take Australia packaging fight to higher court


CANBERRA - Cigarette giant British American Tobacco (BAT) (BATS.L) plans to appeal an Australian court ruling that handed the tobacco industry a setback in its campaign against the world’s first ban on branded cigarette packaging.

The Australian government is legislating to enforce plain packaging for cigarettes in a bid to reduce smoking, angering the industry which has described the reform as a misguided attack on their brands and intellectual property rights.

After the plan was first announced, BAT asked the Federal Court to force the government to release its secret legal advice on the plan, suspecting Canberra’s own lawyers had warned it long ago that such a move would infringe on property rights.

The industry hopes such advice would strengthen its case for a legal challenge against the validity of the proposed law, which is expected to be approved by parliament this year.

“We are definitely looking to appeal and will try to get to the High Court as soon as possible,” Scott McIntyre, a spokesman for BAT’s Australian arm, told Reuters.

“We are thinking that if they are not prepared to release it, maybe it’s because it demonstrates that the plain packaging laws are flawed.”

Another tribunal last week rejected a similar request for government legal documents by U.S.-based Philip Morris (PM.N).

Health Minister Nicola Roxon said on Wednesday the government was determined to implement the plain-packaging reform, which is due to take effect next year and give Australia the world’s most restrictive anti-smoking laws.

“I don’t really think it’s helping them but ultimately they’ve been clear that they will fight this tooth and nail and we’ve been just as clear that we won’t let them bully us into stopping this,” Roxon said.

The lower house of parliament, where the government has a one-seat majority with the backing of Green and independent MPs, began considering the laws on Wednesday.

The conservative opposition wants some changes to allow some very modest form of branding on cigarette packets, but it too is broadly in favour of the reform.

New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and Britain are considering similar laws and governments in those countries are closely watching to see if Australia succeeds.

Analysts say plain packaging could also spread to emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia and Indonesia.

Australia’s total tobacco market revenue grew to about $10 billion (6 billion pounds) in 2009, though smoking generally has been in decline.

Smoking is the largest preventable cause of disease and death in the country.

By Rob Taylor

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