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Big Tobacco backs Australian law opposers

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Two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies are providing legal support to member countries at the World Trade Organisation that are threatening to take Australia to international court over the world’s toughest antismoking laws.

Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, the two largest publicly listed tobacco companies by volume outside China, told the FT they were advising several countries that had complained that Australia’s plain packaging laws – in which tobacco companies will have to sell their products in identical drab packaging – violate international trade agreements.

In March Ukraine, which has a substantial tobacco industry, began legal proceedings against Australia, accusing it of violating intellectual property and free trade laws. Honduras, a tobacco exporter, launched legal action this month. Since then a dozen more countries have signed up to the legal complaints including Brazil, Canada, the EU and Indonesia.

According to the WTO, third-party countries may often sign up to legal complaints and this does not necessarily indicate their opposition. Under the trade body’s rules Australia has until mid-May to settle the dispute, or else it could go before a WTO court.

PMI said the company was openly supporting governments that challenged Australia on plain packaging.

“We have been in contact with many of these countries, including on the trade and legal issues associated with the [plain packaging] policy,” it said. “It is commonplace for affected industries to support countries in WTO disputes and we are open to supporting governments that challenge Australia on plain packaging.”

BAT said the company was happy to provide legal support to member states, but it was “up to them” to accept it.

However, the news drew a sharp response from anti-tobacco campaigners.

“It is very concerning that tobacco companies are using legal action as a delaying tactic against a government that is trying to protect the health of its citizens,” said Robin Hewings, tobacco control manager for Cancer Research UK.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the London-based Action on Smoking and Health, accused the tobacco companies of “getting others to do their dirty work”.

Action at the WTO is part of a multi-pronged fightback by Big Tobacco against the plain packaging law that Australia is due to implement in December. The EU and Britain are also considering plain packaging, which tobacco companies worry could spread to lucrative emerging markets.

Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco have joined PMI and BAT in launching lawsuits against the Australian government, accusing it of illegally confiscating their brands. They say there is no scientific evidence to show plain packaging will reduce smoking rates.

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