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Australian fury over kangaroos on cigarette packaging

Winfield puts kangaroo image on cigarettes in France after Australia moves to force tobacco companies to sell plain packets

Australia’s government has lambasted British and American Tobacco for using the image of a kangaroo on packets of cigarettes sold in Europe, ramping up hostilities ahead of a legal battle over plain-packaging laws.

The attorney general, Nicola Roxon, who as health minister led the drive to introduce laws forcing tobacco products to be sold in plain, olive green packs, said on Friday the use of the most famous Australian symbol to sell cigarettes was outrageous.

The image of a kangaroo, similar to that on warning signs on roads in Australia, appears with the phrase “An Australian Favourite” on packets of Winfield cigarettes sold in France.

“This kind of weaselly marketing tactic will soon have no place here in Australia when all cigarettes will be in plain packaging from December,” Roxon said.

BAT, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris have launched separate high court challenges against the laws, saying they infringe their trademark rights.

The tough, world-first legislation that comes into force this year is being closely watched by governments considering similar regulation in Europe, Canada and New Zealand.

“Australians don’t like the use of our icons, our kangaroos and our healthy lifestyle to be associated in any way with these deadly products,” said Fiona Sharkie, executive director of anti-smoking agency Quit.

British American Tobacco Australia (BATA) said it would not comment on the French kangaroo packaging, which is made by another BAT Group company.

“Unfortunately BATA cannot discuss matters that are currently before the high court and we are concerned that the attorney general has not respected the same high court protocol by commenting in the manner she has,” the company said in a statement.

Industry analysts say tobacco companies are worried that plain packaging could spread to important emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, and threaten growth there.

In 2005, the World Health Organisation urged countries to consider plain packaging, estimating more than 1 billion people are regular smokers, 80% of them in poor countries.

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan has banned the sale of tobacco outright.

Tobacco export countries including Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Ukraine have warned they may also challenge the laws under global trade rules.

Legal experts have predicted both legal and World Trade Organisation challenges will fail because intellectual property rights agreements give governments the right to pass laws to protect public health.

Australia’s tobacco market generated total revenues of about Abn (£7bn) in 2009, up from A.3bn in 2008, although smoking generally has been in decline. About 22bn cigarettes are sold in the country each year.

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