Global tobacco firms lost a “watershed” court challenge to Australia’s plain packaging laws for cigarettes yesterday in a closely watched case health advocates said would have a worldwide impact.
The High Court of Australia ruled the measures, forcing cigarettes and tobacco products to be sold in drab, uniform packaging with graphic health warnings from Dec. 1 this year, did not breach the country’s constitution.
Four companies led by British American Tobacco (BAT) had challenged the law, claiming it infringed their intellectual property rights by banning brands and trademarks from packets, and was unconstitutional, but the court rejected the argument by BAT, Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris that the law represented “an acquisition of [their] property otherwise than on just terms.”
“At least a majority of the court is of the opinion that the act is not contrary to [Australia’s constitution],” the court said in a brief notice of judgement.
The court’s full reasons are to be delivered at a later date and the tobacco firms were ordered to pay the government’s legal costs.
They cannot appeal further in the Australian legal system.
Canberra estimates there are 15,000 deaths nationally each year from tobacco-related illnesses and that smoking costs more than A$30 billion (US$31.4 billion) a year in healthcare and lost productivity.
Australian Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the case was “a victory for all those families who have lost someone to a tobacco-related illness” and should be a “clarion call to every country grappling with the costs and harm of tobacco.”
“This is a watershed moment for tobacco control around the world,” she said in a statement. “Australia’s actions are being closely watched by governments around the world. Other countries might now consider their next steps.”
Britain, Canada and New Zealand are mulling similar measures, and Roxon said China, South Africa and the EU were also following the case with interest.
“The message to the rest of the world is big tobacco can be taken on and beaten,” she said.
Mike Daube, head of an expert panel that originally recommended plain packaging to Canberra, said it was “the biggest defeat for the global tobacco industry that I’ve seen in 40 years.”
“Now this decision’s through, I think we’re going to see plain packaging in the UK, we’re going to see it in New Zealand, we’re going to see it in Norway,” he told Sky News. “It really is the tobacco industry’s worst nightmare come true.”
BAT said it would respect the “bad law,” but warned it would cause black-market cigarette sales to skyrocket as the packaging would be easy to fake and so it would “only benefit organized crime groups.”
Philip Morris said that a number of other legal challenges had been launched, including a case in Hong Kong alleging the law breached Australia’s bilateral investment treaty with the Chinese territory.
“The legality of plain packaging, including whether Australia will have to pay substantial compensation to Philip Morris Asia, remains at issue and will be considered in other ongoing legal challenges,” spokesman Chris Argent said.
Australia is also facing formal complaints at the WTO over the plan from countries including Honduras, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic.
Philip Morris said yesterday’s decision would have “no legal bearing on these international cases or on other jurisdictions.”
“We believe that Philip Morris Asia’s investment treaty case and the WTO challenges are strong,” Argent said.