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Lessons from the WTO Plain Packaging reports: The use of the evidence-based WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control as evidence in international litigation

Published on July 16, 2018        Author: 

Introduction

The WTO Plain Packaging reports have finally been published. The four reports (merged in a single document) contain the findings of the WTO panel in the disputes launched in 2012-2013 by Honduras, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Indonesia. The disputes were directed against some tobacco control measures adopted by Australia – so-called ‘the plain packaging’ (TPP) laws. In a nutshell, TPP mandates that all tobacco products be sold in unattractive standardised packaging, thereby curtailing the use of colours, design and trademarks by tobacco manufacturers. As it was already leaked one year ago, the panel has ruled in favour of Australia.

The 884 pages of the final reports contain a lot of food for thought, and will keep many of us busy for long. This post focuses on a relatively narrow issues, namely the role of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in the case.  Despite being often overlooked in mainstream international scholarship, the FCTC is a remarkable treaty. It is the first (and so far, only) treaty ever negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). Adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2003, it has now reached the massive number of 181 ratifications. The FCTC is also a living treaty: it established a set of institutions, including a Conference of the Parties (COP) that meets biannually and has adopted 9 sets of guidelines.The FCTC was conceived in the ‘90s as an ‘international regulatory strategy’ to ‘promote national action on tobacco control’ (in the words of one of its main promoters, Allyn Taylor), in the face of the growing tobacco epidemic. To this end, the treaty (and later its guidelines) have been developed as ‘evidence-based’ instruments, i.e. as texts that require the adoption of tobacco control measures whose effectiveness has been established by evidence (see Taylor and Bettcher 2000). The set of measures is a comprehensive one, encompassing measures for the reduction of supply and measures for the reduction of demand of tobacco products. TPP measures are also part of this comprehensive set; specifically, they are recommended by the Guidelines to Article 11 and in the Guidelines to Article 13 of the FCTC.

In addition to their role in domestic implementation, the FCTC and its guidelines have proved to be useful instruments in the international disputes launched against the tobacco control measures adopted by its parties (see my earlier report as well as the more recent article by Zhou, Liberman and Ricafort). In some cases, the FCTC and its guidelines have been relied upon for their evidential value, while in others they have been considered ‘evidence’ by reason of their ‘evidence-based’ nature. The TPP reports prepared by the WTO panel are the latest cases in this series. The following sections review the approach taken by the panel on the role of the FCTC, and briefly compare it to the previous international disputes.

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