Sunday, May 27, 2012

Australia's Tobacco Plain Packaging row - Whose interests really?

The International Business Times had an interesting piece on Australia's position on the Tobacco Plain Packaging row. I have blogged about it here, here, here and here.
"The Australian government vowed to repeal efforts by giant tobacco firms to frustrate its aim of further limiting the flow of cigarette products in the country.
These efforts, according to Health Secretary Jane Halton, include the deployment of lawyers by tobacco companies to give out legal assistance to Honduras and Ukraine, two countries that had apparently launched legal challenges on Australia's soon-to-be implemented cigarette plain packaging law."
Two interesting issues come out in this position:

1. Subsidisation: It is apparent that interests of large Tobacco Companies are at stake here and their business interests have propelled the disputes at the WTO. Is it alright for national teams to comprise of lawyers from these tobacco companies? Is this an example of multiple interests being accommodated in the national position - Government lawyers, trade specialists, industry lawyers and lawyers of companies directly affected by the measure. Ukraine and Honduras seem to have adopted this approach. Who foots the bill for this dispute? Would it be legitimate for Ukraine and Honduras to take assistance from the Tobacco companies in this regard?

2. Trade interests: Ukraine and Honduras do not have extensive trade relations with Australia. Why did they initiate the dispute then? Are tobacco exports from these two countries substantial to justify this action? As per the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Ukraine exports 1.1% of world cigarette exports. While Australia imports substantially from China (20%), Ukraine does not figure in the list of countries engaged in exporting to Australia.

This brings us to the question - What motivated Ukraine to file a WTO complaint against Australia which it does not significantly export to? Was it prospects of a future market? Was it about taking  a stand against plain packaging which may affect it"s trade interests if larger trading partners adopted the same measure? Or were "national" interests and "business" interests of large tobacco companies coalescing? Should private parties be allowed directly to initiate disputes at the WTO at their own cost? Though this is not permitted by the present legal framework, would it in effect obliterate the need for seeking "national" interests to pursue purely business interests? What is at stake for the people of Ukraine and Honduras in this dispute? 

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