Tobacco plain packaging beyond Australia

By Amy Little

"Big tobacco can be taken on and beaten."

Those were the words of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon (LLB (Hons) 1990) to describe a watershed moment for tobacco control globally. The Attorney-General had led the fight to mandate that cigarettes be sold in drab dark brown packs without commercial logos.

With plain packaging being fully implemented in December, a team of Melbourne Law School experts, who have published extensively on the issue, are now anticipating the impact it will have across the world.

"The significance is more global than domestic," says international economic law expert, Professor Andrew Mitchell.

"Australia has become the first country in the world to implement a scheme mandating the plain packaging of tobacco products.  This could create a global precedent that tobacco companies desperately want to prevent."

Professor Mitchell has already started providing advice to the World Health Organization and delivering workshops to health officials in developing nations about the laws.

The next stage of his work follows extensive research  on the issue with colleagues Professor David Studdert, Associate Professor Tania Voon, Melbourne Law School's Associate Dean (Research), and Mr Jonathan Liberman, Director of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer.

The McCabe Centre is a joint initiative of the Cancer Council Victoria and the Union for International Cancer Control. Jonathan, who is in the final stages of a Master of Public and International Law, says the Australian example will help other countries respond to the tobacco industry's claims about plain packaging and threats of legal action.

The legislation has been challenged in both the World Trade Organization and under a bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong. Jonathan says that these will become seminal international cases on the intersection between global public health and trade and investment law, and on the power of states to regulate to protect public health.

The tobacco industry is likely to continue its vigorous opposition to plain packaging, with legal challenges remaining a key element of its strategy.

Professor Mitchell, Mr Liberman and Associate Professor Voon recently co-edited a volume on plain packaging, together with Melbourne Law School JD candidate Glyn Ayres, who is currently undertaking the Bachelor of Civil Law as part of Melbourne Law School's degree partnership with Oxford University. The book, Public Health and Plain Packaging of Cigarettes: Legal Issues, (Edward Elgar Publishing 2012), includes contributions from health and legal experts from institutions around the globe.

With plain packaged cigarettes hitting shelves in Australia this December, what's next for the scheme?

"It will take some time for the international challenges to be fully resolved," says Jonathan. "There is an expectation that many countries will follow Australia's lead and introduce plain packaging in the years ahead. The tobacco industry is likely to continue its vigorous opposition to plain packaging, with legal challenges remaining a key element of its strategy."

The work of Melbourne Law School and the Cancer Council Victoria will continue pursuant to two major three-year research grants awarded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.

Banner image: Plain packaging cigarette packet

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 8, October 2012.