Balancing between Trade and Public Health Concerns: The Latest Step in the Plain Packaging Saga

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The Australian Tobacco Plain Packaging (TPP) measures raised the classic issue of balancing between competing interests. While aiming at improve public health by putting plain packaging requirements on tobacco products, Australia revived an important debate in international economic law concerning whether international obligations have become too intrusive for the State’s policy space, asphyxiating the sovereign right to protect essential interests or values.

On the one hand, Australia’s measures seem to have been encouraged by public health concerns and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which is a component of a juridical strategy that purports to construct a consensus in the international legal community on the need to fight the tobacco epidemic. As the preamble to the Convention clearly states, the parties were ‘determinedto give priority to their right to protect public health’. On the other hand, the judicial contestation of the TPP measures nevertheless showed the diversity of competing interests at stake, which made the topic a perfect example of those multifaceted litigations raised before a plurality of international courts and tribunals.

The need to determine a balance between the right of the State to legislate to protect public health and the rights of tobacco companies had appeared already in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights(ECtHR Hachette Filipacchi presse automobile et Dupuy v. France,). Investment arbitration has also been another setting for this sort of litigation, most notably after Philip Morris introduced two claims contesting that the Australian and Uruguayan legislation restricting the presentation and sale of cigarettes was in violation of its rights stemming from BITs. In both cases, these requests remained unsuccessful. The ICSID tribunal used the systemic integration principle of Article 31(3)(c) VCLT to operate a balancing test between the investment protection obligations under the BIT and the State’s right to regulate, established in customary international law, together with its corollary, the police powers doctrine (Philip Morris Brands Sàrl, Philip Morris Products S.A. and Abal Hermanos S.A. v. Oriental Republic of Uruguay, award, para 290).

Ever since the introduction of the complaints in 2012, the question that remained was whether the WTO adjudicatory bodies would have interpreted trade obligations in keeping with this line of reasoning. In an earlier post on the Panel report, Margherita Melillo reflected on how the Panel used the FCTC for evidentiary purposes. This blog post continues this reflection by looking at how the Panel resolved conflicting interests of public health and trade.

Balancing in international trade law

Concerns about the treatment of tobacco control measures under international trade law date back at least to the 1990 GATT case Thailand – Restrictions on importation and internal taxes on cigarettes. While tobacco control measures have also been the subject of two recent trade disputes (i.e. Dominican Republic — Import and Sale of Cigarettesand US — Clove Cigarettes), neither of these disputes drew as much attention to these concerns as Australia – Plain Packaging. At the heart of this dispute was the sharp conflict between the trade interests of the complainants and the public health concerns of Australia. International trade law normally addresses such conflicts through a system of ‘rule and exception’, set out to strike a balance between trade and non-trade interests. However, the two agreements at issue in Australia – Plain Packaging, namely the TBT Agreementand the TRIPS Agreement, do not contain a general ‘exception clause’ equivalent to GATT Article XX. The balancing of competing interests (trade and public health) in this dispute thus took place in the context of determining the consistency, or otherwise, of the TPP measures with Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement and Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement.

More trade restrictive than necessary?

The complainants alleged that the TPP measures were more trade restrictive than necessary to achieve their legitimate objective, contrary to Article 2.2 of the TBT Agreement. This provision allows Members to adopt technical regulations that achieve legitimate objectives, insofar as they are not more trade restrictive than necessary to fulfil those legitimate objectives. Parties to the dispute agreed that the objective of the TPP measures, as the Panel put it, was ‘to improve public health by reducing the use of, and exposure to, tobacco products’ (para 7.232). They also accepted that such objectives are legitimate within the meaning of Article 2.2 (para 7.248). Their disagreement was over the trade restrictiveness of the measures and their contribution to the public health objective they pursue. The complainants contended that the measures were more trade restrictive than necessary and proposed four alternative measures that would have been, in their view, reasonably available and less trade-restrictive while making an equivalent contribution to the realization of the legitimate objectives.

Since the objective of the measures at issue was undisputed and such objectives fall within the illustrative list of legitimate objectives under Article 2.2, the main task of the Panel was to determine whether these measures were indeed trade-restrictive but nevertheless contributed to the legitimate objectives. Taking the evidence before it in its totality, the Panel concluded that ‘the TPP measures, in combination with other tobacco-control measures maintained by Australia […], are apt to, and do in fact, contribute to Australia’s objective of reducing the use of, and exposure to, tobacco products’ (para 7.1025). The Panel also found that ‘the TPP measures are trade restrictive, ‘insofar as, by reducing the use of tobacco products, they reduce the volume of imported tobacco products on the Australian market, and thereby have a “limiting effect” on trade’ (para 7.1255).

Having found that the TPP measures are trade-restrictive but make a significant contribution to the protection of public health, the Panel had to weigh and balance the trade and public health interests at stake to determine whether they are more trade-restrictive than necessary to achieve their public health objectives. In doing so, the Panel first considered the risk of non-fulfilment of the objectives and then the reasonable availability of alternative measures that are less trade-restrictive while making an equivalent contribution to the achievement of those objectives. On the ‘risks of non-fulfilment’, it found that ‘the public health consequences of not fulfilling [the] objective are particularly grave’ (para 7.1322). It then examined the proposed alternative measures and found that the complainants failed to demonstrate their proposed alternative measures (individually or collectively) constituted a less trade-restrictive alternative to the TPP measures with an equivalent contribution to Australia’s objective (paras 7.1362-7.1723). Against this background, the panel concluded that the TPP measures are not more trade-restrictive than necessary to achieve their legitimate objective of improving public health (para 7.1732).

Unjustifiable encumbrance?

The complainants also alleged that the TPP measures constitute special regulations that unjustifiably encumber the use of trademarks in the course of trade, contrary to Article 20 of the TRIPS Agreement. The threshold issues here were whether the measures in question constitute ‘special regulation’ and ‘encumbrance’ within the meaning of Article 20. The parties to the dispute agreed that the measures indeed constituted special regulations, but they disagreed over the precise scope of the term ‘encumbrance’. While the complainants argued that it covers all kinds of hindrances and impediments, Australia insisted that it covers only limitations on the use of trademarks. Australia was of the view that a total prohibition on the use of trademarks is outside the scope of Article 20. The Panel agreed with the complainants that it would be ‘counterintuitive’ to consider that a measure that restricts the use of a trademark would be subject to the disciplines of Article 20 while a more far-reaching measure to prohibit such use would not’ (para 7.2238). This consideration has led the Panel to conclude that ‘encumbrances arising from special requirements within the meaning of Article 20 may range from limited encumbrances, […], to more extensive encumbrances, such as a prohibition on the use of a trademark in certain situations’ (para 7.2239). This finding settles the debate over the meaning of the term ‘encumbrance’ in Article 20. While scholars such as Pires de Carvalho have argued that the degree of encumbrance is not to be taken into account for the applicability of the provision, others, most notably McGrady, have argued that a prohibition falls outside the scope of application of Article 20 because the provision deals with whether the trademark could be used and not how it may might be used. The position of Pires de Carvalho seems to have prevailed over the one of McGrady in the eyes of the Panel. On this point, it is also interesting to note that a similar discussion took place concerning what constitutes a technical regulation within the meaning of the TBT Agreement. The Appellate Body in EC – Asbestos reversed the conclusion of the Panel,stating that an absolute prohibition does not qualify as a technical regulation.

Having passed the threshold issues, the Panel then had to determine whether such an encumbrance was unjustified within the meaning of Article 20. No definition or guidance as to what constitutes ‘unjustifiable encumbrance’ exist under the TRIPS Agreement. Nor there is case law on the subject. The Panel had to appreciate the justifiability in concreto, balancing the two conflicting interests.

In the absence of an agreed upon definition or jurisprudence, the Panel interpreted what constitutes ‘unjustifiably’ encumbering the use of trademarks in light of the object and purpose of the TRIPS Agreement. Here the Panel relied mainly on Article 8.1 of the TRIPS Agreement and the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. Having found that these two provisions authorize WTO Members to take measures for the protection of public health, the Panel concluded that the complainants have not demonstrated that the TPP measures unjustifiably encumber within the meaning of Article 20 (para 7.2605). That is to say that although the measures at issue encumber the use of trademarks within the meaning of Article 20, the encumbrance is justified by virtue of its public health objective. This conclusion resonates with the conclusion of scholars like M. Abbott who have argued  that an interpretation of Article 20 consistent with Article 8 and the Doha Declaration would have acknowledged and given effect to the ‘right to protect public health’ in any implementing action under the TRIPS Agreement and in any dispute settlement proceeding.

In arriving at this conclusion, the Panel also considered the fact that the TPP measures are ‘in line with the emerging multilateral public health policies in the area of tobacco control as reflected in the FCTC and [its] guidelines’ (para 7.2604). The Panel was of the view that the fact FCTC (a non-WTO agreement) endorses the TPP measures reinforces their justifiability. This raises the longstanding question of whether WTO adjudicatory bodies could use non-WTO agreement as an interpretative key. Although the Appellate Body has used such instruments to interpreting WTO agreement in the past, the jurisprudence is far from settled on this matter. This is why Honduras highlighted this issue in its notification of appeal.

A parallel could be made with the Brazil – Tyrescase. Here, the Appellate Body adopted a holistic approach and stressed that, because of their nature, health protection measures had to be analyzed in the larger framework of the State policy action. Looking at the measure as a whole would allow for a clearer overview of the objectives pursued by the State to be identified, in order to facilitate a more accurate balancing. Moreover, the analysis of the effectiveness of the measure had to take a chronologically larger standpoint; the effectiveness of a public policy can in fact take time to emerge (paras 151 and 182). This holistic approach, elaborated in the framework of Article XX GATT, seems to be reiterated in the framework of Articles 20 and 8 TRIPS: the unjustifiability of the encumbrance has be examined in light of all the contextual elements that lead to the adoption of the public health measure, including the reliance on the FCTC and the customary right to regulate. Here we find a strong similarity with the balancing operated in the Philip Morris case, based on an intersystemic and holistic approach.


The WTO Panel’s recent report is the last step in a long saga. This saga has allowed different international courts and tribunals to test the flexibility of international obligations with regard to the State’s regulatory space in health issues. The plain packaging report confirms a general trend in WTO case law, whereby the telosof the measure serves to justify the interference within free-trade obligations. In fact, the Appellate Body had floated an ‘unspoken sympathy for well-intentioned health and safety measures’, an unspoken sympathy that is based on the axiological importance attributed to the policies at stake. This kind of ‘smell test’, as Hudec notoriously defined it, reflects Robert Alexy’s idea of weight formula, intrinsic in the balancing operation operated in different fora. The Panel has extended this technique to two areas of WTO law where its scope of application was doubtful.  

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