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June 4th, 2015:

Ukraine drops lawsuit against Australia over plain-packaging tobacco laws, WTO says

Ukraine suspends legal proceedings against Australia which claimed its plain-packaging tobacco laws were trade-restrictive.

Ukraine has dropped a lawsuit against Australia over its plain-packaging tobacco laws, according to the World Trade Organisation. The Eastern European country has suspended the legal proceedings it launched against Australia through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2012 which claimed the laws were trade-restrictive. Instead, Ukraine has told a WTO panel of adjudicators they hope to find a mutually agreed solution with Australia.

Ukraine was the first of five countries to challenge Australia’s laws at the WTO, even though it does not export tobacco to Australia. Health campaigners were perplexed by Ukraine’s lawsuit because it is also a party to the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and backed guidelines on how to implement the treaty, including enforcing plain packaging. British American Tobacco has previously said it was helping meet Ukraine’s legal costs in the case against Australia, with individual companies unable to pursue litigation via the WTO. There was no indication lawsuits would be dropped by the other countries challenging Australia’s laws — Indonesia, Cuba, Honduras and Dominican Republic.

The countries say Australia’s strict tobacco packaging laws, which ban flashy logos and distinctive-coloured cigarette packaging in favour of plain olive packets with brand names printed in small standardised fonts, infringe trademarks and constitute illegal barriers to trade. But a growing number of countries have said they plan to follow Australia’s 2010 step, and public health advocates said standardised packaging heralds a new era of tobacco control

If Australia wins the legal battle, the effects could be felt beyond the tobacco industry with supporters and opponents pointing out similar rules could be imposed on junk food and alcohol. Under WTO rules, Ukraine’s suspension could last 12 months, after which its right to return to the panel proceedings will lapse. The WTO adjudication panel has previously said it expected to rule on the tobacco lawsuits against Australia in the first half of next year.

WikiLeaks releases secret TISA docs: The more evil sibling of TTIP and TPP

The new agreement that would hamstring governments and citizens even further.

WikiLeaks has released 17 secret documents from the negotiations of the global Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), which have been taking place behind closed doors, largely unnoticed, since 2013. The main participants are the United States, the European Union, and 23 other countries including Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Taiwan and Israel, which together comprise two-thirds of global GDP.

Significantly, all the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—are absent, and are therefore unable to provide their perspective and input for what is essentially a deal designed by Western nations, for the benefit of Western corporations. According to the European Commission’s dedicated page: “TiSA aims at opening up markets and improving rules in areas such as licensing, financial services, telecoms, e-commerce, maritime transport, and professionals moving abroad temporarily to provide services.”

TISA’s focus on services complements the two other global trade agreements currently being negotiated in secret: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the corresponding deal for the Pacific region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which deal with goods and investments. Like both TTIP and TPP, one of the central aims of TISA is to remove “barriers” to trade in services, and to impose a regulatory ratchet on participating nations. In the case of TISA, the ratchet ensures that services are deregulated and opened up to private companies around the world, and that once privatised, they cannot be re-nationalised.

The 17 documents released today include drafts and annexes on issues such as air traffic, maritime transport, professional services, e-commerce, delivery services, transparency, and domestic regulation, as well as several documents on the positions of negotiating parties. The annexe on e-commerce is likely to be of particular interest to Ars readers, since, if adopted, it would have a major impact on several extremely sensitive areas in the digital realm.

Thou shalt not…

For example, the question of data flows—specifically the flow of European citizens’ personal data to the US—is at the heart of disputes over the EU’s proposed Data Retention rules, the Safe Harbour agreement, and TTIP. Here’s what Article 2.1 of TISA’s e-commerce annexe would impose upon its signatories: “No Party may prevent a service supplier of another Party from transferring, [accessing, processing or storing] information, including personal information, within or outside the Party’s territory, where such activity is carried out in connection with the conduct of the service supplier’s business.”

What that means in practice, is that the EU would be forbidden from requiring that US companies like Google or Facebook keep the personal data of European citizens within the EU—one of the ideas currently being floated in Germany. Article 9.1 imposes a more general ban on requiring companies to locate some of their computing facilities in a territory: “No Party may require a service supplier, as a condition for supplying a service or investing in its territory, to: (a) use computing facilities located in the Party’s territory.”

TTIP explained: The secretive US-EU treaty that undermines democracy

A boost for national economies, or a Trojan Horse for corporations?

Article 6 of the leaked text seems to ban any country from using free software mandates: “No Party may require the transfer of, or access to, source code of software owned by a person of another Party, as a condition of providing services related to such software in its territory.” The text goes on to specify that this only applies to “mass-market software,” and does not apply to software used for critical infrastructure. It would still prevent a European government from specifying that its civil servants should use only open-source code for word processing—a sensible requirement given what we know about the deployment of backdoors in commercial software by the NSA and GCHQ.

Without WikiLeaks, the presence of these far-reaching proposals would not have been revealed until after the agreement had been finalised—at which point, nothing could be done about them, since the text would be fixed. With the publication of these documents, civil society has an opportunity to find out what is being discussed behind those closed doors, and to analyse and discuss the implications. Whether the negotiators will take account of what ordinary people think is another matter.

It’s time to extend the smoking ban in HK

When people walk along Nathan Road in Kowloon or Des Voeux Road on Hong Kong Island, they inevitably come into contact with many smokers, puffing away. These innocent non-smokers have no escape as the paths are so narrow. They are forced to unwillingly inhale second-hand smoke. This is a serious problem because many people die each year from inhaling poisonous second-hand smoke.

It is time the Hong Kong government set an example for all mainland cities and cities worldwide. The government should enact laws to prohibit smoking on streets to reduce air pollution and deaths caused by smoking-related diseases — including lung cancer. Smokers can smoke at home if they wish. They can still enjoy the freedom to smoke in private. But their freedom to smoke should never infringe the rights of people who don’t want to inhale second-hand smoke.

Banning people from smoking on the streets might sound drastic. But only tougher measures are going to produce results. Tobacco companies have plenty of funds to lobby legislators so they will take a softer approach when dealing with smoking. But it is time lawmakers did something for Hong Kong people on this issue. In fact, they and the next generation will benefit considerably from these new laws. After all, who does not want to breathe clean air?

Hong Kong already bans smoking in public places such as cinemas, sports grounds and restaurants. People who violate these laws are subject to fines. Beijing adopted similar rules on June 1. All indoor public places and many outdoor ones have to be absolutely smoke-free, which includes primary and high schools and hospitals which treat women or children. Thousands of inspectors will be tasked with the job of inspecting venues and issuing fines to violators. Beijing’s latest move has won praise from inside and outside the country.

Central government figures show that there are 300 million smokers on the mainland. One million Chinese die from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer every year. Even on the mainland a million is not a small number. So why can’t people just kick the habit or seek counseling to treat the addiction?

Smoking is also a serious health hazard around the world; there is little doubt about this. Just look at places far from Hong Kong and the mainland. In the UK, for example, women’s life expectancy in 2012 (latest figures available) is 5 weeks shorter than in 2011. UK’s Faculty of Public Health noted that the shorter life expectancy among women was the result of “more smoking”.

Also in 2012 (latest figures available), lung cancer killed 11,692 people in Taipei, the Taiwan government’s health promotion administration revealed. The number of deaths rose 6 percent from 2011. Lung cancer was caused by air pollution, smoking and second-hand smoke, the government health agency noted.

In Hong Kong, the Tobacco Control Office of the Department of Health works hard to enforce the non-smoking laws in public places such as restaurants. It conducted 29,000 inspections in 2014, a 6 percent rise from 2013. It issued a total of 8,000 fixed penalty notices and summonses to offenders. Smokers who are caught are fined HK$1,500. But what the Tobacco Control Office does isn’t enough.

The government should give Hong Kong people a gift to celebrate July 1, the date of reunification, by widening the smoking ban and proclaiming new legislation to stop smoking near pedestrians. This will save lives. Moreover, Hong Kong people will support this initiative.

The author is a veteran journalist and an adjunct professor at Shue Yan University.

Experts want end to deal with tobacco industry

The agreements drawn up between the European Union (EU) and the four major transnational tobacco companies to crack down on cigarette smuggling and recoup lost tax revenues are failing to meet their stated aims, concludes research published online in the journal Tobacco Control. They are littered with loopholes, which the tobacco companies can easily exploit, and should be abandoned.

The agreements were drawn up between 2004 and 2010 with Philip Morris (PM), including Philip Morris International (PMI), Japan Tobacco International (JTI), British American Tobacco (BAT), and Imperial Tobacco Limited (ITL), following emerging evidence of the direct and indirect involvement of the tobacco industry in smuggling activities, and subsequent litigation. The agreements released these companies from any civil claims relating to previous smuggling activities and, in the case of Philip Morris and JTI, were set up in exchange for dropping legal proceedings against them.

The intention was to crack down on the illegal trade in cigarettes across Europe by requiring the four companies to secure their supply chain through marketing and tracking/tracing activities and by making two types of payment to the European Commission and the member states of the EU.

These payments comprised annual fixed sums payable from 2004 up to 2030, ranging from US$200 million to US$1 billion; and ‘seizure payments’ equivalent to 100 per cent of the evaded taxes for seizures above quantities of 50,000 cigarettes in one haul, or up to 500 per cent if total annual seizures exceed 150-450 million cigarettes.

To find out how well the agreements are working, the researchers analysed documents for 2004-12 not publicly available, but obtained under EU legislation. These showed that some €70,728,624 (US$100 million) had been paid out during this period by three out of the four transnational companies — PMI, JTI and ITL.

In 2012, these companies stumped up just €4.1 million, equivalent to 20 million seized cigarettes. But this is a tiny fraction (0.5 per cent) of the 3.8 billion cigarettes seized in the EU that year, say the researchers.

The European Anti Fraud Office (OLAF) estimates that cigarette smuggling loses the EU €10 billion every year, so the average yearly total for seizure payments of €8.3 million represents just 0.08 per cent of these losses.

There are two main reasons why these payments are so small, they suggest. Only large-quantity seizures qualify for the penalty, and since the agreements were reached, the average size of consignments has shrunk; and secondly, the payments only apply to genuine, not counterfeit, products, yet customs officials rely on industry to determine the status of the seizures not subject to independent verification.

Czech gov’t approves bill on banning smoking in restaurants completely

PRAGUE, June 3 (Xinhua) — The Czech government approved on Wednesday a bill on completely banning smoking in restaurants, at concerts and dance parties.

The bill will take effect as of January 2016 if it passed by parliament, said Czech Health Minister Svatopluk Nemecek. The bill also prohibits the sale of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks in vending machines and introduces other measures to reduce the consumption of tobacco and alcohol.

The sales of cigarettes and alcohol via Internet are also being restricted. The restrictive measures concern also electronic cigarettes and herbal products for smoking. Igniting of them would be prohibited even in movie theaters, sports arenas, schools, transport, covered platforms and shelters at stops.

According to the new bill, pubs and bars will be bound to offer at least one non-alcoholic beverage cheaper than beer on drinks menus. Penalties for violating the bill would also be toughened. For example, if drunk children are found in a pub, the pub would have to immediately close for two days.