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Ukraine's lawsuit against Australia, claiming that its plain tobacco packaging law constitutes an illegal barrier to trade, has been dropped much to the relief of tobacco control and public health supporters around the world.

Adjudicators for the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced on Wednesday that Ukraine has suspended the case it was pursuing that aimed at overturning Australia's strict tobacco packaging laws. The statement reported that Ukraine would instead seek a mutually agreed solution with Australia.

"This is very, very good news," said José Luis Castro, Executive Director of The Union, who joined four other international health organisations in writing a letter to Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, asking that they suspend the suit. "The tobacco industry needs to know that they can no longer manipulate either public health or trade policies to market their deadly products.

"We would especially like to congratulate The Life Regional Advocacy Center in Ukraine on this successful outcome. A former Bloomberg Initiative grantee, Life is a resource center for the national Coalition for Tobacco Free Ukraine and worked very hard to achieve this result."

The proposed suit was a prime example of tobacco industry interference and the conflicts that it can create. The Ukraine is a party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and was one of the countries that backed guidelines on how to implement the treaty, including the enforcement of plain packaging. It does not even export tobacco to Australia, yet, with financial backing from British American Tobacco, it launched the suit via WTO. Under WTO rules, Ukraine's suit may be suspended for up to 12 months; after that, its right to return to the panel proceedings would lapse.

Meanwhile, the conflict about the plain packaging issue will continue.

A growing number of countries have said they plan to follow Australia's 2010 step, which requires bright coloured and well-branded cigarette packaging to be replaced by drab olive packaging with brand names printed in small standardised fonts.

Public health advocates say standardised packaging heralds a new era of tobacco control, since graphic health warnings and other packaging changes have proved to be highly effective in deterring people from smoking and in discouraging non-smokers from taking up the habit.

"The war over packaging is crucial," said Dr Ehsan Latif, Director of The Union's Department of Tobacco Control. "It is one of the most important tools we have for saving millions of lives, so we can not give in. It is literally a matter of life over death."

The tobacco industry says that plain packaging laws infringe on their trademarks; and four other countries – Honduras, Cuba, Indonesia and Dominican Republic – have also challenged Australia's tobacco packaging laws at the WTO on the grounds of the laws being illegal barriers to trade. There was no indication that their litigation would be affected by Ukraine's decision.

The WTO adjudication panel has previously said it expected to rule on the cases brought by the five complainants against Australia in the first half of next year.

Both supporters and opponents say the legal battle could have consequences beyond tobacco because similar rules could be imposed on packaging for food judged unhealthy and alcohol, if Australia wins.

With tobacco use, obesity and unsafe use of alcohol all leading risk factors for the non-communicable diseases that kill 35 million people each year, prevention campaigns are considering how successful tobacco control strategies might provide a model for addressing this massive public health challenge.

Sources: Reuters, The Union


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