Australia’s highest court has upheld a new government law on plain packaging for tobacco products, sparking concern that the move could set a precedent for other countries, including the UK.

The news follows a UK consultation on the Department of Health’s plans to introduce plain packaging for tobacco, which closed for submissions on Friday (August 10).

Last year the Australian government passed world-leading legislation removing all branding and logos from tobacco packaging, requiring all tobacco to be sold in plain, standardised packs. Public health campaigners insist that plain packaging will reduce the appeal of tobacco products to young people, but the tobacco industry has fiercely opposed the move.

Four tobacco companies took the case to the Australian High Court, claiming that the proposals amounted to a confiscation of intellectual property without compensation, with the Australian government countering that plain packaging does not acquire the brands used by the companies but instead limits the circumstances in which the brands may be used.

The Australian High Court has now rejected the tobacco industry position and supported the government’s right to legislate on plain packs as a legitimate public health measure.

Imperial Tobacco’s head of UK Corporate & Legal Affairs, Colin Wragg, said: “This decision plays into the hands of the criminal gangs who profit from counterfeit tobacco; their job will be significantly easier now that all tobacco products will be sold in the same generic packaging.

“The illegal tobacco trade is a significant problem in Australia and we expect the situation to worsen considerably as a result of this legislation, placing further pressures on retailers and government tax revenues.

“Tobacco packaging has never been identified as a reason why people start, or continue, to smoke, and there is no credible evidence to support the notion that plain packs will reduce smoking levels,” added Wragg.

“Our intellectual property rights are robustly supported by trade mark treaties and laws at an international, European and national level and we don’t believe the Court’s decision in Australia will have any legal implications in other markets.

“We will continue to defend our legitimate commercial right to utilise our trade marks to differentiate our brands from those of our competitors.”

The new packaging rules are scheduled to be implemented from 1 December 2012.

In a brief statement, the court said: “At least a majority of the court is of the opinion that the Act is not contrary to (Australia’s constitution).”

The full judgement is expected to be published on a later date.

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