Australia's High Court upholds ban on cigarette package branding

In collaboration with the Press Association

The Australian government's decision to ban all forms of branding on cigarette packets has been upheld by the country's highest court.

The move, which could set a precedent for other countries to follow suit, has been hailed by cancer charities and health organisations across the globe.

The Australian High Court reached its landmark decision in spite of protests from tobacco companies including British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco.

They had argued that, under Australia's constitution, they should be compensated for not being able to display their distinctive trademarks on cigarette packaging. The court has not yet released the reasons for its judgement, but ordered the tobacco companies to pay the Australian government's legal fees.

Instead of featuring distinctive colours, brand designs and logos, from December the packs will come in a uniform shade of olive and feature graphic health warnings. The aim is to make smoking as unglamorous as possible.

Welcoming the High Court decision, attorney general Nicola Roxon and health minister Tanya Plibersek issued a joint statement, hailing the move as "a victory for all those families who have lost someone to a tobacco-related illness".

"For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is for you," they said. "No longer when a smoker pulls out a packet of cigarettes will that packet be a mobile billboard."

Robin Hewings, tobacco policy manager for Cancer Research UK, said the decision was a "humiliating blow" for companies "who have been confidently claiming that plain packs are illegal". 

It follows defeats in the UK on vending machines and tobacco displays in shops.

"The Australian government has led the way in pushing for tough action on how cigarettes are sold, and we urge the UK government to follow suit as quickly as possible," he added.

In the UK, a public consultation on plain packaging closed last Friday.

Australian National University law professor Matthew Rimmer said the High Court had "driven a stake through the undead vampire heart of the tobacco industry" which often used such legal cases to "frustrate regulation in regards to health".

Professor Rimmer is one of many experts now expecting other countries to follow Australia's lead and said that countries considering similar legislation include Britain, New Zealand, Canada, India and Norway.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, agreed, saying that once a country implements such a measure, it opens the way for other countries to do the same. He commented: "The industry knows that plain packaging is a massive threat and that if Australia implements plain packaging, then other countries are sure to follow.

Mr Cunningham pointed out that about 50 nations followed Canada's lead after it became the first to make pictorial health warnings mandatory in 2001.