Cuba, Ukraine, Indonesia, Honduras and Dominican
Republic have brought the action against Australia, the first
country to ban the colorful logos used to sell tobacco brands around
the world, a law aimed at reducing addiction and disease.
Opponents of the law, who say it is heavy-handed and an invitation
to counterfeiters, had hoped other countries would hold off from
following Australia's example pending a WTO verdict, but Britain,
Ireland and New Zealand have already begun drafting similar
Since late 2012, tobacco products in Australia can only be sold in
drab olive-colored packets that look more like military or prison
issue, with brands printed in small standardized fonts.
The five countries challenging it say the legislation is a barrier
to trade and restricts intellectual property.
"My country fully shares Australia's health objectives. However, its
plain packaging measure is failing to have the desired health
effects of reducing smoking prevalence and remains detrimental to
our premium tobacco industry," Katrina Naut, the Dominican
Republic's foreign trade chief, said in a statement.
"By banning all design elements from tobacco packaging, plain
packaging precludes our producers from differentiating their premium
products from competitors in the marketplace."
After two years of slow-going procedure, Australia and its five
challengers have agreed the conditions that will allow the case to
get under way within weeks and for a ruling to be made potentially
as soon as November.
In the key step to get the process started, WTO chief Roberto
Azevedo will appoint three panelists by May 5 to judge the dispute,
according to transcripts of statements at the body's dispute
settlement body on Friday.
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As well as its huge importance for the global tobacco industry,
the case could have implications in other sectors, as some public
health advocates see potential for plain packaging laws to extend
into areas such as alcohol and unhealthy foods.
The appointment of WTO panelists will set the clock ticking on a
six-month deadline for them to rule on the dispute.
However, panels frequently ask for more time and the WTO's dispute
system is suffering from a bottleneck.
Any party to the dispute could also appeal, which will add months
more, and some disputes drag on for years due to disagreements over
whether a country ruled to be in the wrong has done enough to comply
with the terms of a judgment.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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