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In this handout image provided by the Australian Government, a proposed 'plain-packaged' cigarette packet is seen.

  • "It's extraordinarily encouraging," says public health advocate
  • The high court published its decision, but not its reasons
  • Tobacco companies say the law means the government is taking its intellectual property

In a decision announced Wednesday, Australia's high court upheld the plain packaging act, which says that tobacco products must be in plain packaging and bear graphic health warnings as of December 1.

"It's extraordinarily encouraging," said Richard Daynard, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute. "It means that governments are pretty much free to do what they feel is necessary to protect their population from tobacco marketing, including marketing on packages. In other words, it's a blow for public health."

Several tobacco companies had challenged the act as unconstitutional, saying the government was unfairly taking its intellectual property.

The high court posted the decision on its website, but not the opinion. That will be published at a later date, it said.

Daynard, in a telephone interview, said Philip Morris has taken the lead in litigation against governments that take strong anti-tobacco control measures. "They have a case against the government of Uruguay for requiring that 80% of the packages have warnings on them," he said.

Australia's Labor Party has introduced laws that would require cigarettes be sold in olive-brown packaging.

In addition to Philip Morris Asia, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco have also taken legal action against the requirement, according to the Australian Public Health Association.

Australian company Imperial Tobacco said it was disappointed in the ruling and that the decision may bring unintended consequences.

"Our biggest concern is the effect plain packaging will have on illicit trade," spokeswoman Sonia Stewart said. "Plain packaging will make Australia a magnet for the growing black market in tobacco, which already costs the Australian Government nearly $ 1billion per annum in lost revenue."

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