Indonesia, Ukraine, Cuba, Honduras and Dominican
Republic have all launched complaints at the world trade body to try
to overturn Australia's "plain packaging" laws on tobacco.
Australia hopes the stringent packaging laws will reduce smoking and
improve public health, and other countries around the world have
said they may follow suit, based on the WTO case, raising the stakes
for a speedy resolution.
An Australian diplomat told the WTO's dispute settlement body that
the uncertainty of the proceedings and the failure to move towards a
settlement was having a "regulatory chilling" effect on other
countries thinking of putting their own tobacco rules in place, and
said there could be a "human cost" of delays.
"Australia does recognize that there may be circumstances where
prolonging formal dispute processes might be justified," the
diplomat said, according to a copy of Australia's statement provided
"But it is not the case here. Not one of the parties has approached
Australia to resolve the case through a mutually agreed solution,"
the diplomat said.
Many countries demand tobacco products carry graphic health
warnings. But Australia has gone much further, banning flashy logos
and distinctive colors in favor of drab olive packets that look more
like military or prison issue, with brand names printed in small
Tobacco firms say the rules infringe their trademarks. The WTO
complainants say they create illegal obstacles to trade.
SPEEDING UP THE PROCEDURE
Plain packaging is seen by public health advocates as the dawn of a
new era of restrictions on unhealthy products, and many observers
expect a similar campaign against marketing of alcohol and unhealthy
foods if the anti-smoking drive succeeds.
The plain packaging rules have been in force since December 2012 and
had been well publicized several years before that, so other
countries had plenty of time to get their complaints in order,
Australia told the WTO meeting.
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It added that WTO members should not launch disputes and only
later decide if they have a chance of winning them, and noted the
WTO dispute settlement system was already stretched.
To underline its willingness to get to litigation underway,
Australia accepted Indonesia's request on Wednesday to set up a
panel of adjudicators to rule on the dispute, waiving its right to
delay the setting up of the panel, a tactic that is routinely used
in WTO disputes.
Indonesia's request for a panel is the third, after similar moves
by Ukraine and Honduras. Australia said that over the past two
years, Ukraine had asked it to delay setting up a panel to allow
Honduras and Dominican Republic to catch up.
Honduras took 10 months to request a panel and immediately suspended
the process, while Dominican Republic took 16 months before asking
to join talks on setting up a panel, without saying when it would
move to that stage, Australia said.
Ukraine asked WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo earlier this week
to nominate panel members, and Australia said it would ask Azevedo
to do the same for Honduras and join the two cases together.
Despite the change of government in Kiev, Ukraine's representative
at the meeting said it remained "actively committed to proceed" with
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Tom Heneghan)
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