Australia seeks global backing for expected tobacco legal showdown

By Rob Taylor, Reuters

CANBERRA — Australia is confident the world’s toughest anti-tobacco laws will soon pass in Parliament, but the government warned on Thursday that the anti-smoking fight was not over and urged other nations to reject a possible WTO challenge backed by big tobacco. Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the minority government was bracing not only for a court challenge to its plan to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging from 2012, but also an intellectual property dispute at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“A tobacco company themselves can’t bring a claim in the WTO. A state has to do that,” Roxon told Reuters in an interview. “I won’t be surprised if tobacco companies are out there looking for a country to claim on their behalf, and we urge countries not to do that.” The new laws, expected to easily pass Parliament next week with backing from the conservative opposition and Green crossbench senators, are being closely watched by New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and Britain, which are considering similar restrictions. The legislation is in two parts, one of which mandates that cigarettes can only be sold in plain olive green packaging and another part restricting tobacco company trademarks. The plan has infuriated tobacco firms including Philip Morris , British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco, which have threatened a High Court challenge. Tobacco-producing nations like Nicaragua, Kenya and Ukraine also say the measures breach global trade rules.

Despite political unease at home over potential compensation claims that tobacco companies have said could mount to billions of dollars, Roxon has been a passionate advocate for the laws within the Labor government, which has a one-seat buffer with the backing of Green and independent MPs. Her father, Jack, a one-time smoker, died of esophageal cancer at 42, when Roxon was just 10, leaving her pharmacist mother alone to raise three daughters.