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Pacific News Minute: WTO Upholds Australia’s “Plain” Cigarette Packages


Cigarette packages could change in many countries after a ruling by the World Trade Organization last week. In a landmark case, the WTO upheld an Australian law that requires what’s called “plain packaging.” But the packages are anything but plain.

The face of every cigarette pack sold in Australia trumpets a health warning, “Smoking Causes Mouth Cancer” for example, with a graphic picture of a diseased body part below.

Elsewhere, the color of the pack is a dull olive drab. The brand name is printed in small letters, with no stylization – “Winfield” uses the same standardized font as “Rothmans.”

This case was filed by four tobacco growing countries: Indonesia, Cuba, Honduras and the Dominican Republic – who claimed that the law infringed trademarks and intellectual property rights.

On Friday, the WTO rejected those arguments – ruling that the Australian law contributed to the improvement of public health. Honduras plans an appeal. As you might expect, tobacco companies also took “plain packaging” to court. Australia won over Phillip Morris last year and this week, we learned that Australia’s legal fees added up to 35 million dollars.  

Credit United States Mission Geneva / Flickr
World Health Organization Logo

The World Health Organization predicted a domino effect. New Zealand, Ireland, France, Hungary and Britain have already followed Australia’s lead. Norway’s plain packaging law took effect yesterday – and laws are pending in six other countries. The precedent could also lead to new marketing rules for unhealthy foods and alcohol.

Smoking is the largest cause of preventable death around the world, and kills an estimated six million people every year. Studies in Australia show that plain packaging does help reduce smoking, particularly by discouraging new smokers.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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