Australia tobacco-packaging law doesn't violate WTO rules

A World Trade Organization dispute body said Thursday that Australia did not unfairly inhibit trade by requiring plain packaging for tobacco products, sending a message that tough-on-tobacco rules don't necessarily violate fair trade.

The WTO's dispute settlement body said complainants did not successfully demonstrate that Australia had violated its obligations to ensure fair trade following its implementation of path-breaking legislation in 2012 requiring plain packaging as a way to reduce health risks.

Complainants acknowledged the risks of smoking, but argued Australia's measures couldn't reduce use of tobacco products and hampered trade more than needed to reach its public health goals. The WTO dispute body countered that Australia's policy in fact can help reduce tobacco use.

Several countries toughened their rules on cigarette packaging after Australia. The Canadian Cancer Society, which has compiled figures on the issue, reported in February that seven European countries and New Zealand have adopted plain packaging, and another 16 including places in Africa are considering it.

Some 40 countries and groups — from the United States and the European Union to impoverished tobacco-growing Malawi — were third parties to cases brought by Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Indonesia to complain about Australia's policies.

The decision is not final, and complainants will have up to 60 days to appeal to the WTO's appellate body, which theoretically has another 90 days to issue its judgment. An appeal seems likely.

Anti-smoking advocacy groups pounced on what they called good news.

"This is a landmark victory in the global fight against tobacco use and a resounding defeat for the tobacco industry, which has fiercely fought plain packaging laws," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement.

"This victory for Australia provides a tremendous boost to the growing global movement to require that cigarettes and other tobacco products be sold in plain packaging, without colorful logos and other branding that attract youth, mislead consumers and increase the appeal of these deadly and addictive products," he said.