WTO Official Expects Appeal to Landmark Tobacco Logo Case

(Bloomberg) -- A key World Trade Organization official said he expects countries will file an appeal in the landmark trade dispute over Australia’s tobacco plain-packaging rules.

The WTO expects an appeal soon, Ujal Singh Bhatia, the chairman of the WTO appellate body, said in a speech published Tuesday on the body’s website.

The WTO backed Australia’s argument that its tobacco rules don’t violate trade law because they qualify as a legitimate public-health measure, Bloomberg News reported last year, citing people who declined to be identified because the decision isn’t yet public.

Once an appeal is triggered, the WTO appellate body is required to consider the matter and issue a ruling within 90 days. That timeline may be extended, however, because of the complexity of the dispute and a shortage of panelists in the WTO’s appellate system.

No Logos

Australia was the first country to prohibit tobacco logos in 2011, and many countries hesitated to implement such measures after four tobacco-producing countries filed complaints in 2012 and 2013.

The four complainants in the case -- Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Indonesia -- argued that Australia’s plain-packaging law imposed unfair restrictions on the use of trademarks, geographical indications and other markings in violation of several WTO agreements.

The TRIPS Agreement, which sets out trade rules to protect companies’ intellectual-property rights, contains an exemption that permits WTO members to “adopt measures necessary to protect public health and nutrition.”

The WTO has not publicly circulated its final dispute ruling, partly because of the time required to translate the ruling. The WTO’s dispute-settlement body issued an interim report in May and on Sept. 22 said its final ruling was delayed until the third quarter of 2017 due to the “complexity of the legal and factual issues that have arisen in this dispute.”

If a forthcoming appellate ruling also vindicates Australia’s rules, it could usher in a new wave of global tobacco restrictions from other countries that want to deter smoking.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.