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World body upholds Australian law on tobacco plain packaging

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Following a five-year legal battle, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has upheld the landmark Australian law on restrictive tobacco packaging, better known as plain packaging.

Tobacco firms claimed their trademarks were being infringed, while Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Indonesia complained at the WTO that the rules constituted an illegal barrier to trade.

Australia was the first country to sign on to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Bipartisan support in the federal parliament enabled the introduction of legislation so that all tobacco products sold, offered for sale, or otherwise supplied in must be in plain packaging.

Evidence demonstrates that changes to tobacco packaging there led to more than 100,000 few smokers in Australia in the first 34 months since implementation in 2012.

Former Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon, who oversaw the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes, said the decision should encourage other countries to follow suit.

“We’ve already seen a large number of countries introduce or take steps to introduce plain packaging, so it’s a really significant international outcome,” Ms Roxon said.

As laid out in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the plain packaging of tobacco products entails restricting or prohibiting the use of logos, colours, brand images or any promotional information other than brand and product names displayed in a standard colour and font.

The objectives of tobacco plain packaging as set out in the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 are to improve public health by discouraging people from using tobacco products, encouraging people to give up using tobacco products, discouraging relapse of tobacco use and reducing exposure to tobacco smoke.

The United Nations continues to advocate for the use of plain packaging of tobacco products in an effort to save lives by reducing demand for such products, which kill nearly 6 million people every year.

Six nations have legislated for and have implemented or will shortly be implementing plain packaging (Australia, France, UK, Norway, Ireland and Georgia) and a more are set to follow.

Tobacco smoking is the single largest preventable cause of premature death and disease in Australia. Smoking contributes to more deaths and hospitalisations than alcohol and illicit drug use combined. While smoking prevalence in Australia has declined over time, the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 2.8 million Australians aged 14 years or older still smoke daily (15.1 per cent). Continued effort is therefore necessary to maintain the decline and reduce the social and economic costs of tobacco use to the community.

The AMA recognises that tobacco is unique among consumer products in that it causes disease and premature death when used exactly as intended. There is no safe level of tobacco smoking.

The AMA also believes that all forms of public promotion and marketing of tobacco products should be banned. 

Meredith Horne