This article is the second in a series that investigates and reports on the disputes over Australia’s tobacco plain packaging measure in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Plain packaging for tobacco products has been debated intensively in the WTO for over three years and the panel is expected to continue until at least the first half of 2016 (see Australia – Certain Measures Concerning Trademarks, Geographical Indications and Other Plain Packaging Requirements Applicable to Tobacco Products and Packaging (WT/DS 435, WT/DS 434, WT/DS 441, WT/DS 458, WT/DS 467)) (28 April 2014).

The last article examined the introduction of plain packaging legislation in Australia, the efficacy of the measure and the challenges being brought against it at the WTO.  This article examines the relationship between trade liberalisation and tobacco usage.  In doing so, it highlights the important role of international courts and tribunals, including the WTO Panel and Appellate Body, in maintaining a  coherent international legal system.

Does trade liberalisation contribute to increased tobacco usage?

During the 1980s, the US threatened sanctions and retaliation under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) against Japan, South Korea and Taiwan unless they opened their markets which were closed to foreign tobacco companies.  In response to this pressure, those countries opened their markets to foreign tobacco companies, increasing their populaces’ tobacco usage.  In 1989, the US challenged Thailand’s 1966 Tobacco Act for placing limitations on American tobacco companies.  A GATT panel found against Thailand in 1990, forcing it to open its market to tobacco multinationals.

These cases illustrate how international trade agreements and state pressure have indirectly facilitated the proliferation of western tobacco in developing countries, which increases rates of smoking.  A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO Report) has found that the link between trade liberalisation and increased tobacco consumption is strongest in low and middle-income countries. The WHO Report also found that foreign direct investment (FDI) leads to higher rates of tobacco consumption.  This is because FDI is an alternative pathway to accessing a foreign market with high barriers to trade.  The finding is in line with basic trade theory, which suggests that liberalising a market will increase competition and efficiency in the supply of a product to that market.  Other factors, including marketing, tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and the international movement of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes, have also contributed to the explosive increase in tobacco usage.

In order to combat the rise of tobacco consumption and disease globally, governments have employed increasingly strict tobacco control measures.  Australia was in fact not the first country to consider plain packaging for tobacco products.  New Zealand first recommended that cigarettes be sold only in white packs with black text and no colours or logos as early as 1989.  In 1995, the Canadian parliament passed a plain packaging law which was ultimately struck down by its Supreme Court.  Presaging the negative reaction of the tobacco industry to global plain packaging reform, Phillip Morris threatened to reduce future investment in Canada in response to its plain packaging laws.  Upon the release of Australia’s draft legislation, Imperial Tobacco stated it would ‘make every effort to protect its brands and associated intellectual property and … take legal action’.  The approaches of Phillip Morris and Imperial Tobacco reflect the tobacco industry’s general position, which is to pursue every avenue to challenge implementation of plain packaging.

Regional and bilateral free trade agreements provide one such avenue for tobacco control laws to be challenged.  For example, Philip Morris Norway made a challenge under the European Economic Area Agreement against Norwegian bans on the display of tobacco products at the point of sale.

The tobacco industry is also using its rights under international investment agreements to challenge tobacco control and regulation.  In addition to the challenges made under the Australia–Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty, Philip Morris Switzerland recently brought a similar claim against Uruguay, arguing that its tobacco packaging measures violate the Switzerland–Uruguay bilateral investment treaty.

The increase in bilateral and multilateral free trade and investment agreements provides tobacco companies with a resource with which to disrupt reform.

Supporting and internationally coherent legal system

Tobacco companies are seeking redress in domestic courts, international arbitral tribunals and the WTO. The use of multiple fora is contributing to the wider dilemma of ‘conflicting rules and clashing courts’.  This poses the threat of undermining international law generally because its diversification and expansion is leading to ‘the fragmentation of international law’.

Fragmentation is characterised by Pieter Jan Kuijper as a ‘deplorable development’ which is brought about by a decrease in the application of general principles of international law in specialised jurisdictions, including WTO proceedings.  The International Law Commission (ILC), on the other hand, characterised it as a natural consequence of the expansion and specialisation of different areas of international law. Either way, WTO panels and the Appellate Body should be ensure that they interpret opposing norms harmoniously given the dangers of further fragmentation.

The ILC identifies several approaches to establish an internationally coherent legal system.  These include:

  • relationships of interpretation, where one norm assists in the interpretation of another using the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties;
  • relationships of conflict, which refers to the case where two norms that are both valid and applicable point to incompatible decisions so that a choice must be made between them; and
  • the principle of harmonisation, which is a generally accepted principle that when several norms bear on a single issue they should, to the extent possible, be interpreted so as to give rise to a single set of compatible obligations.

As providing security and predictability to the multilateral trading system is an overarching goal of WTO dispute settlement, it is important that this forum is able to harmonise the conflict between international trade and domestic and global health policy.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is important to the harmonisation process as it clarifies existing standards and key protections in relation to public health and tobacco control.

The entry into force of the FCTC in 2005 was a decisive moment for global tobacco control. It is an evidence-based treaty developed in response to the globalisation of tobacco consumption and related harm. Ratifying the FCTC places all parties under an obligation of good faith (pacta sunt servanda) to abide by the minimum legal standards outlined in the treaty and to not to undermine the objectives set out in it. In addition to minimum commitments, parties are ‘encouraged to implement measures beyond those required by this Convention and its protocols’. This is further supported by the object and purpose of the FCTC, which states that the parties are ‘determined to give priority to their right to protect public health’. As of 2015, there are 180 parties to the FCTC in contrast to the WTO with 161 members. In fact, there are just eight WTO members not party to the FCTC, two of which are challenging Australia’s measure.

Another solution may lie in mechanisms found in non-WTO treaties with trade related aspects, including multilateral environmental agreements (MEA). The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol to the Biodiversity Convention — which has seven more signatories than the WTO — not only has a provision relating directly to trade and environmental agreements, but also advances the principle of mutual supportiveness. This is a principle by which international legal rules are to be understood and applied as reinforcing each other with a view to fostering harmonisation and complementarity, as opposed to conflicting relationships.

So far, no action affecting trade and taken under an MEA has been challenged in the WTO system.  However, the WTO Trade and Environment Committee recognises that MEAs provide internationally agreed solutions for trade problems, which it says better than one country trying to change another countries’ environmental policies on its own.  It is possible that the principle of mutual supportiveness, and other trade facilitative measures, can assist the WTO Panel and Appellate Body to interpret WTO provisions in a fashion which supports international legal coherence.

The next article in the series will look at how the FCTC should be used to interpret Australia’s obligations under WTO law in a manner which is consistent with general international law.

Pauline Wilson recently graduated from an LLM at the University of Amsterdam with a focus on international trade and investment law. Prior to that she graduated from the ANU with a combined Bachelor’s of Arts and Law.