Fellow faculty about to examine students on the Law of the World Trade Organisation, have their exam sorted (especially if it is an oral exam). In 2018 SCC 15 R v Comeau the Canadian Supreme Court held last week. At issue is New Brunswick’s restrictive regime on the import and sale of alcoholic beverages. Greg Tereposky and Daniel Hohnstein have background to the case.
Despite the Province’s regime having clear trade impact, the SC held that it was not illegal under Canada’s internal free trade rules – with occasional reference to GATT and WTO. For comparative and exam purposes, the interesting angle is clear: has the Supreme Court adopted the kind of aims and effects test which the WTO is no fan of?
Copy of the judgment. 15 mins prep. And Bob’s your (oral exam) uncle.
(Handbook of) The law of the World Trade Organisation, forthcoming at OUP with Demeester, Coppens, Wouters and Van Calster.
Postscript 10 December 2015 For a similar exercise, see Sharpston AG in C-472/14 Canadian Oil.
Less is sometimes more so I shall not attempt to summarise all issues in Case C-198/14 Valev Visnapuu. The case makes for sometimes condensed reading however it perfectly illustrates the way to go about dealing with obstacles to trade put in place for environmental, public health or, as in this case, both reasons.
Mr Visnapuu essentially forum shops Estonia’s lower prices on alcohol by offering Finnish clients home delivery of alcoholic beverages purchased there. No declaration of import is made to Finish customs and excise, thereby circumventing (accusation of course is that this is illegal) a variety of excise duties imposed for public health and environmental reasons, as well as a number of requirements relating to retail licenses and container requirements (essentially a deposit-return system) for beverages.
Confronted with a demand to settle various tax debts, as well as with a suspended prison sentence, Mr Visnapuu turns to EU law as his defence in a criminal proceeding. The CJEU then had to settle a variety of classic trade and environment /public health questions: whether the packaging and packaging waste Directive is exhaustive on the issue of deposit-return system (answer: no and hence the system additionally needs to be assessed vis-a-vis EU primary law: Article 34 ff TFEU or Article 110 TFEU); whether in the context of that Directive excise duties on packaging may be imposed (yes) and packaging integrated into a functioning return system exempt (yes; in the absence of indications that imported systems are less likely to enjoy the exemption); whether the relevant excise duties fall under Article 34 ff TFEU or Article 110 TFEU (answer: it is part of an internal system of taxation hence needs to be judged vis-a-vis Article 110 TFEU); and finally whether the retail licence requirement needs to be judged viz Article 34 or Article 37 TFEU (answer: mixed, given the various requirements at stake). Final judgment on proportionality is down to the Finnish courts.
Readers in need of a tipple would be advised to postpone until after reading the judgment. Again though the case shows that if one keeps a clear head, classic structures of applying EU law go a long way in untangling even complex matters of law and fact.
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.
Postscript 8 January 2016: the Advocate General of the WTO referred to the WTO case, in a challenge to the EU’s ban on menthol cigarettes, suggesting the EU wouldbe in WTO trouble had it not banned their sale.
The WTO Appellate Body’s Report in ‘Clove cigarettes’ was issued on 4 April. It is a dream ‘Trade and public health’ case and therefore generally a superb ‘trade and regulatory autonomy’ case. Under appeal were a number of the findings of the Panel in first instance. The WTO summarises the dispute as follows:
‘(the case) concerns Section 907(a)(1)(A) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FFDCA”), which was added to the FFDCA by Section 101(b) of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This measure bans the production and sale of clove cigarettes, as well as most other flavoured cigarettes, in the United States. However, the measure excludes menthol-flavoured cigarettes from the ban. Indonesia is the world’s main producer of clove cigarettes, and the vast majority of clove cigarettes consumed in the United States prior to the ban were imported from Indonesia.’
Discrimination, necessity, the link between the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT – new under the WTO) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (applied since 1947 and with a richer case-law history), the possibility of employing regulatory objectives to decide upon ‘likeness’ between products: these and other issues are all dealt with by both Panel and AB. Per usual and not surprisingly (the same holds for many courts, nationally and internationally), the jury is out on many of the topics addressed. This leaves uncertainty of a similar ilk as after the Brasil Tyres case, the consequences of which I have analysed for JEL here.