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WTO appoints plain pack panelists

World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevêdo this week appointed three panelists to consider the legality of Australia’s law requiring plain packaging for tobacco products

The panel will be chaired by Alexander Erwin of South Africa. The other two members are François Dessemonted of Switzerland and Billie Miller of Barbados. The parties will make written and oral representations to the panel, which must finalize its report within six months.

The panelists will decide whether they think Australia’s tobacco plain packaging laws breach the trade organization’s rules before the end of the year.

Five complaints have been brought by Ukraine, Indonesia, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Honduras against Australia. The six countries were unable to agree on who should examine the disputes. Under a harmonized procedure, the five complaints will be considered by the same three panelists.

Although each complaint targets Australia’s plain packaging rules, they are not exactly the same. Ukraine’s deals with “certain measures concerning trademarks and other plain packaging requirements applicable to tobacco products and packaging” while the rest also invoke the WTO’s rules on geographical indications.

The appointments come shortly after Australia complained that the unresolved trade row was having a chilling effect on other countries that are considering introducing similar constraints on the way that tobacco is packaged. Ukraine requested consultations with Australia under WTO procedures more than two years ago.

New Zealand has already said that it plans to follow Australia’s lead, and the UK government said last month it will introduce plain packaging following a review.

If the panel decides that plain packaging does breach WTO trade rules, it will recommend how the measure should be changed. Its report becomes the Dispute Settlement Body’s ruling or recommendation within 60 days unless a consensus rejects it. If a party appeals, the appeal will be heard by three members of the WTO’s permanent seven-member Appellate Body. It has up to 90 days to uphold, modify or reverse the panel’s legal findings and conclusions. The Dispute Settlement Body has to accept or reject the appeals report within 30 days – and rejection is only possible by consensus.

Plain packaging will be discussed tomorrow in the session CM02 Plain Packaging: Who Will It Affect Next? from 10:15 am to 11:30 am.

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