By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Ultra-plain packaging for tobacco products might become the norm worldwide if a World Trade Organization panel rules in favor of Australia on Thursday in what is seen as a test case for public health legislation globally.

The WTO said the adjudication panel’s ruling in the dispute over Australia’s “plain packaging” rules, brought in 2012-2013 by Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Indonesia, would be published at around 1500 GMT.

A WTO ruling that upholds Australia’s position would be a blow to the tobacco industry as it would effectively give a green light for other countries to roll out similar laws. It could also have implications for alcohol and junk food packaging.

“Tobacco plain packaging is an evidence-based measure that WHO recommends as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control,” Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization said on Thursday. “A positive decision from the WTO Panel is likely to accelerate global implementation.”

A Bloomberg News report last year cited two people familiar with the situation as saying the panel was likely to rule in Australia’s favor. If so, an appeal is seen as likely.

Australia’s law goes much further than the advertising bans and graphic health warnings seen in other countries.

Introduced in 2010, it bans logos and distinctive-colored cigarette packaging in favor of drab olive packets that look more like military or prison issue, with brand names printed in small standardized fonts.

Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Indonesia complained at the WTO that the Australian rules constituted an illegal barrier to trade.

Tobacco firms have said the law infringes their trademarks and that the easily counterfeited packs will encourage smuggling, although they are not involved in the WTO case.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris declined to comment on Thursday as it is not party to the dispute.

Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, head of the secretariat of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, said it was a huge day for tobacco control, because of the WTO ruling and because a protocol to halt tobacco smuggling had taken effect.

She saw a “domino effect” in plain packaging, with other countries already moving towards Australian-style rules.

“What this shows in reality is that plain packaging is a reality, it will happen anyway, and parties will progressively adhere more to plain packaging,” da Costa e Silva told Reuters.

Some countries were now discussing a tobacco “endgame”, with less than 5 percent of the population smoking, she said, adding: “Plain packaging is part of this path.”

The WTO ruling is expected to be appealed, the WTO’s chief judge has said. That leaves the dispute’s eventual outcome uncertain, because the WTO may run out of judges next year due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s veto on new judicial appointments.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Martinne Geller, Editing by Jane Merriman and Catherine Evans)

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