Exam questions, anyone? Plain packaging regulations and domestic regulatory autonomy

Postscript January 2016 Reportedly the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCITRAL rules, has declined jurisdiction. The award is to be made public here once it has been cleared of confidential data.

Postscript June 2015: I have many other posts on the issue however I thought I”d here that in June 2015, Ukraine suspended its complaint against Australia. Simon Lester collates why. And end of May 2015, Norway Norway TBT plain packaing notification its plain packaging plans to the WTO TBT Committee, with extensive pre-emption of legal arguments against it.

Postscript 22 10 2013:  on the BIT front, see the interesting defence by the European Commission of BITs in October 2013 here. Reference is made ia to the ongoing Philip Morris and Vatenfall (Nuclear energy) issues.

Faculty everywhere have been handed a treasure trove of exam questions, courtesy of ‘plain packaging’ (students please look away now).  A variety of States are in the process of introducing ‘plain packaging’ requirements on tobacco products. Although they of course vary in detail, they generally require tobacco manufacturers to strip packaging of all tailored corporate content, resorting instead to prescribed generic packaging. The ‘plain’ packaging required is generally limited to brand name in standardised fashion (font size and lettering, colour…), joined by a number of health warnings (including, sometimes, images), excise duties requirements and ingredients listings.

Plain packaging ticks all the boxes of a classic ‘domestic regulatory autonomy’ dispute. It pitches the freedom of a sovereign State to pursue ‘regulatory’ interests (environment, public health, consumer protection, stability of the economy etc.) against the free trade commitments which the same State has voluntarily committed to. These trade commitments take the form of multilateral (such as the WTO, the EU’s Internal Market, or NAFTA) or bilateral (such as bilateral free trade agreements and customs unions) agreements. They most often do not, but sometimes do include procedural rights for private parties (as opposed to simply the States which have concluded the agreement) to launch legal proceedings should free trade (arguably) have been infringed. Such standing for private parties is the case in many BITs, i.e. Bilateral Investment Treaties, as well as for instance (subject to a number of whistles and bells), NAFTA.

Free trade agreements are not generally oblivious to the continuing desire of participating States to regulate the interests referred to above. Consequently they include room for ‘domestic regulatory autonomy’ to continue after the conclusion of the agreement, subject of course to checks and balances.

This fragile balance between free trade and regulatory autonomy is exactly what the current debate on plain packaging is all about. The issue is being fought on many fronts: At the World Trade Organisation, Ukraine have filed a complaint in March 2012 against Australia’s plain packaging laws on the basis of the TRIPS (intellectual property) and TBT (technical barriers to trade; product regulations) Agreements. Ukraine’s complaint is supported by a number of WTO Members with tobacco manufacturing interests.

Australia’s position is eagerly anticipated by other jurisdictions thinking of doing something similar.See e.g. here and here.

At a constitutional level, issues include free (commercial) speech (see here for the related issue of graphic warnings), expropriation (of the trademark), non-discrimination (why no plain packaging on alcohol, for instance).

At a level of BITs, the issue has rejuvinated the ‘regulatory takings’ debate (do new regulatory requriements of host States amount to a ‘regulatory taking’ (as compared to a straightforward expropriation) that may be incompatible with investment protection requirements. The Uruguay-Switserland (see here and enter search term ‘ICSID Case No. ARB/10/7’) and Australia-Hong Kong BITs are among those affected. One imagines that the necessity of the measure will be hotly contested, as the actual health impact of the measure is not entirely certain. See the (controversial) ruling of the European Free Trade Association’s Court on the related issue of display bans here and the excellent analysis of prof Alemanno.

One will have gathered: all of this is excellent material for those of us teaching Trade and regulatory law. Geert.

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