Friday, June 10, 2011

Plain Pack wars: The Dominican Republic takes on Australia!


From the World Trade Organisation June 7 intellectual property council meeting:

Australia’s plain packaging bill for cigarettes

In this new agenda item, the Dominican Republic objected to a draft Australian law requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging without logos or trademarks. The brands would be identified simply in a standard typeface with large graphic health warnings.

Australia originally notified the draft and the public consultation on it under the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement, in document G/TBT/N/AUS/67, which contains details of the requirements. (See also this Australian government web page, which includes images of samples of the proposed packaging.)

Support or sympathy for the Dominican Republic came from Honduras, Nicaragua, Ukraine, the Philippines, Zambia, Mexico, Cuba and Ecuador.

The Dominican Republic said it has “serious and grave” concerns that the proposed law would also violate the WTO’s intellectual property agreement and the linked Paris Convention. Among the legal concerns was that it would be a “special requirement” that would “unjustifiably” encumber the use of trademarks “in a manner detrimental to its capability to distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings” (TRIPS Article 20).

The proposed law, the Dominican Republic argued, would hurt tobacco producers in small and vulnerable economies. It would fail to reduce smoking because the lower costs of the packaging and the competition on price — the only remaining marketing tool available — would make cigarettes cheaper and encourage higher consumption. It would also make counterfeiting easier, it said. But it added that it does recognize countries’ right to protect public health.

Australia explained why the law has been proposed — as the next available step in the campaign to deal with a major and lethal health hazard. Higher excise duties and the possibility of using anti-counterfeiting labelling would make the cigarettes more expensive and prevent smuggling, it said. Australia will do this in a way that complies with its international obligations, it added.

New Zealand, Uruguay and Norway said Australia’s draft law is justified. India did not comment on the law specifically but said studies show that plain packaging does reduce smoking. India, Brazil and Cuba stressed their view that countries have the right to implement public health policies without intellectual property being an obstacle — referring directly or indirectly to the 2001 Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health.

Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and China described the issue as complex, requiring balance and a closer examination. Switzerland said it understands both sides of the debate and expects Australia to abide by its TRIPS obligations.

The World Health Organization (WHO), an observer in the TRIPS Council provided information on its policies and on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

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