WTO Sides with Property Rights in Preliminary Plain Packaging Hearing

 Last week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) plain packaging ruling is a crucial victory for advocates of property rights in the battle to protect intellectual property of brands across the world. The Dominican Republic, together with Honduras, Ukraine, Cuba, and Indonesia have raised concerns that these policies unfairly violate international trade norms and discriminate against intellectual property rights.

The preliminary ruling means that the Dominican Republic will challenge Australia’s law in the WTO for unfair trade practices. At issue is Australia imposing trivial restrictions on global brands including preventing the display of logos and artworks on packaging. These policies impose severe constraints on the free market, and have created unwieldy and unfair burdens on producers and consumers alike. While the ruling does not presuppose any judgment in either direction, it nevertheless represents a positive step in preserving and protecting property rights.

When Australia enacted its Plain Packaging law in 2012, the country attracted controversy and opposition from concerned stakeholders over fears that the law would create a dangerous precedent for restricting property rights and would cause an increase in dangerous unregulated counterfeit products. At the time of its introduction there was little evidence that this policy would improve public health. Even now it remains unclear what, if any, are the effects of plain packaging on tobacco consumption and public health.

The controversial law has opened the flood gates for other nations to rush through their own ill-conceived laws under the guise of ‘public safety’, with IrelandNew ZealandFrance, and the United Kingdom considering their own laws. If these countries really care about decreasing tobacco use they need only to look at the facts.

After decades of declining smoking rates in Australia, the first full year of plain packaging led to an increase in smoking rates.

Opposition to plain packaging is not based on any approval or disapproval for tobacco products, but is based on concerns that plain packaging of tobacco products is the first step towards government control over branding for any product that bureaucrats deem necessary.

Already, advocates in Australia fear that it is only a matter of time until alcohol products are subjected to the same restrictions, while the U.K. parliament is also reportedly considering new restrictions on alcohol brands that could include plain packaging. Meanwhile South Africa has already introduced plain packaging for baby formula.

While there will undoubtedly be a flurry of government action in defense of reckless plain packaging laws, this early decision should serve as vindication for advocates of property rights.