Thank you for not displaying. Objections to tobacco display ban go up in smoke.

I have previously referred to the display ban case which Philip Morris took to the EFTA Court. I have only just recently stumbled across the eventual holding of the court which had referred the case to Luxembourg. (The Norwegian court held a year after EFTA’s judgment). Not GAVClaw style to report close to 2 years after date of issue: blame the inadequate (read lack of) system by which EFTA and indeed EU Member States report back on their eventual findings in preliminary review.

The District Court had been instructed by the EFTA Court to review whether the display ban actually affects the sale of domestic products and sale of goods from other EEA States equally. If there is de facto equal treatment, the law surfs on Keck & Mithouard’s exception for ‘selling arrangements’: no infringement of the core prohibition on quantitative restrictions to trade in the first place. (See Alberto Alemanno’s analysis of the EFTA ruling for background).

The national court suggested that the EFTA Court had not been entirely clear on how that test had to be constructed: not at any rate, it held, as a market hindrance test: i.e. that new products’ chances of entering the Norwegian tobacco market should be decisive for the question of whether a restriction exists.  It referred inter alia (at p.35 of the copy referred to above) to the fact that the Norwegian Government in its submission to the EFTA Court had suggested that even though such hindrance for new products at the time did not actually exist, it could be expected indeed hoped that this would be the case. The District Court held that in the light of this acknowledgement by the Government, had the EFTA Court found this problematic, it would and should have said so explicitly. (This in some ways might be seen as a risk for the EFTA Court’s tradition, in line with the ECJ’s approach, to practice judicial economy).

The District Court in the end decided to continue the case on the basis of whether national products have a more favourable position due to local habits and customs linked to tobacco use (at p.35): the burden of proof whether the ban actually and not just potentially affects the marketing of imported tobacco products differently than domestic tobacco products lies with PMI, the Court held. That, it said, was not established with clarity: the de facto discriminatory effect of the display ban was found to be too uncertain to be considered a trade barrier.

The Court then somewhat inconsistently (do Norwegian courts practice wide obiter?) did review suitability and proportionality (not needed if Keck & Mithouard applied). Here, without naming the precautionary principle, the Court applies an important consequence often associated with it: the reversal of burden of proof. The Court essentially wanted PMI to show clear evidence for the display ban not being suitable for restricting the consumption of tobacco in Norway, at any rate in the long term (p.48). The Court essentially relies on previous case-law on tobacco advertising and equates suitability of the display ban with relevant studies and case-law on advertising restrictions. This was bound to (although the court took some length to establish it) lead to a finding of suitability.

Finally, as for proportionality proper, the court (with cross-reference i.a. on the effect of these bans elsewhere) did not find less trade restrictive alternatives (within the context of access to information or branding at point of sale).

This judgment just has to be staple fodder for risk classes and the interaction between risk analysis and trade law.

Geert.

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