Packaging legislation a much needed win

deborah-gleeson-thumbDr Deborah Gleeson


A shorter version of this piece was published in The Conversation on 25 August, 2011. 

Last night legislation to introduce tobacco plain packaging in Australia was passed by the House of Representatives. This is a much-needed win not just for the Australian Government but also for the global fight against tobacco-related harm.

Australia has taken on a leadership role in tobacco control at the global level. This leadership role must also extend to the trade agreements that threaten the success of tobacco control by enabling Big Tobacco to take legal action against governments.

Smoking remains the major cause of preventable, premature death around the world, killing almost 6 million people each year

Unless concerted action is taken, the World Health Organization predicts that tobacco will be responsible for 8 million deaths per year by 2030. The burden of premature death is disproportionately borne by low and middle income countries.

Many low and middle income countries have yet to introduce effective tobacco control policies. For example, only 15% of the world’s population sees strong graphic health warnings on tobacco products

In many of these countries, where smoking rates are higher and economies tend to be closely enmeshed with the tobacco industry, big transnational tobacco companies hold far more power than they do in Australia.

It is vitally important that the tobacco industry is not granted additional powers to take legal action against governments for introducing tobacco control measures recommended by the World Health Organization.

A regional trade agreement currently being negotiated could provide the tobacco industry with new avenues to take such legal action, unless Australia intervenes. 

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is being negotiated between Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Brunei, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia. There are three more rounds of negotiations planned for September, October and November 2011, and member countries are now tabling draft text for the agreement and making their positions on the key issues clear.

The US Government is seeking investor state dispute settlement provisions in this agreement that would grant powers to foreign companies to sue governments directly in international courts for public health regulation like plain packaging. Philip Morris International has already indicated that it would sue the Australian Government if such provisions are included.

Australia’s position against investor state dispute settlement is strong. The Government’s Trade Policy Statement released in April 2011 states that it ‘will not accept provisions that limit its capacity to put health warnings or plain packaging requirements on tobacco products’ (p. 14). This is very welcome news for tobacco control and public health advocates.

But Australia’s stance on the inclusion of investor state dispute settlement provisions that would apply to other members of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is less clear. Including these provisions for other countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, where the tobacco industry already has a strong hold, would see them become even more vulnerable to the bullying tactics of Big Tobacco.

Australia has indicated that it will not seek investor state dispute settlement clauses in its trade agreements with developing countries. To fully implement this policy, trade negotiators must actively reject efforts to include them in the regional agreement, and work with the developing country members to strengthen their positions. The next round of negotiations, in September, presents an opportunity to do this.

Australia must take its leadership role seriously and ensure that investor state dispute settlement is kept out of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. This will deal a big blow to the global bullying capacity of the tobacco industry.

Deborah Gleeson is a Research Fellow in the School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University.