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Many Lash out Against Australia’s Plain Packaging Laws

Mere weeks away from finalizing 2011’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill, the Australian government has been taking major flak from critics all over the world, including (but not limited to) Habanos SA, the state-run Cuban cigar monopoly. Habanos SA warned the feds in Australia that the new legislation could violate the country’s obligations to the World Trade Organization, according to an article in the Australian.

If and when it is finalized, the Tobacco Packaging Bill 2011 would require all cigars to be packaged in plain boxes bearing only the brand name and type of cigar. Cigars in tubes would instead be packaged in plain green tubes, and all cigar bands would be removed and replaced with brown ones (presumably, the packaging would also feature the same giant, graphic health warnings as cigarette packs). Essentially, a large part of the art of creating a cigar would be completely destroyed, and Habanos SA, along with Valeriy Pyatnytskiy, Ukrainian ambassador to the WTO, argue that this would violate international intellectual property agreements, namely the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

And the opposition doesn’t stop with Habanos SA. According to the article, representatives of American business groups at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)meeting in Hawaii warned Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard that the impacts of this law could have far-reaching consequences beyond the realm of tobacco products. In particular, Cal Cohen of the Emergency Committee for American Trade said that the legislation would “set off a major, major problem for the global trading system,” adding, “This has nothing to do with regulating tobacco and everything to do with the precedent that would be set by Australia violating its international treaty obligations.”

It goes without saying that I hope this legislation is stopped in its tracks, but even with global criticism, it doesn’t seem like the Australian government is willing to give in. I can’t imagine what the consequences will be if this law is passed and members of the WTO oppose it, but I guess we’ll find out once it goes through. Anyway, regardless of whether the motives are directly related to the premium cigar industry, it’s nice to have some big players on our side. Let’s hope this thing eventually works itself out, one way or another.