In 2010, the Rudd Government announced the world's first laws demanding the plain packaging of tobacco products.
Two years on, the policy has survived not only a change of government, but fierce resistance from big tobacco companies, culminating in the legal challenge concluded before the High Court little over a month ago. The case saw the claims of big tobacco rejected by the bench and the decision was hailed as both "a massive win for public health" and "global tobacco companies' worst defeat". As Attorney-General Nicola Roxon gleefully declared, "We have taken on big tobacco and we have won."
However, while the battle may have been won, the war on tobacco is far from over. Australia's plain packaging continues to be brought under intense scrutiny on an international level. Interestingly, each new development has seen the national policy, intended to improve the health of Australians, evolve into the most notorious international trade dispute the nation has ever faced.
Most significantly, Ukraine has initiated proceedings against the plain packaging laws via the World Trade Organisation (WTO), alleging that Australia has breached several of its trade obligations as a member-state of the WTO.
The claims, also supported by Honduras and the Dominican Republic, essentially assert that Australia's proposed plain packaging laws will impose unfair trade barriers upon them, as well as stripping them of their intellectual property rights under international law.
The grievances are especially intriguing in light of the fact that Ukraine has not traded tobacco with Australia since 2005 and therefore has negligible trade interests immediately affected by the legislation. As home to a subsidiary of Phillip Morris International, there is widespread suspicion that Ukraine is acting as a proxy state on behalf of multinational tobacco companies. This would be at odds with the WTO's state-based rules and procedures, which do not permit corporations to bring an action directly to the WTO themselves.
Regardless of the dispute's true origins, Australia appears set to continue its recent winning streak when the matter goes global. Its prospects of success in the upcoming WTO dispute are strong.
After all, the relevant treaties and agreements are subject to certain exemptions that justify the plain packaging provisions on the basis of public health objectives. Keeping in mind that smoking inflicts $31.5 billion worth of social costs upon the Australian economy and takes 15, 000 lives on a yearly basis, it is not difficult to see how plain packaging measures that seek to minimise these statistics support the interests of public health.
Should Australia experience success in defending its plain packaging laws to the WTO, a spate of other nations, including Britain, New Zealand, Canada and India, have indicated that they are prepared to follow suit. Such a movement would signal the dawn of what has been dubbed the "Olive Revolution", a reference to the drab green-brown colour of the suggested packaging.
Potentially, the so-called revolution would see a shared set of rules, norms and principles governing tobacco be gradually created between different nations, much in the vein of international regimes that have already been established in the issue areas of human rights and the environment over past decades.
Australia's capacity to institute far-reaching change of this nature reaffirms wavering beliefs of its diplomatic ambition and influence, as well as its ability to "punch above its weight" on the international stage. Therefore, the policy's effects might not be limited to improving public health in the long-term, but improving Australia's international reputation too.
In this respect, the trade dispute awaiting Australia before the WTO could be the start of something much bigger for Australia. It cannot shy away from the challenge. Too much rests on the matter's successful resolution.
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