Philip Morris SÀRL v. Uruguay
In February 2010, three subsidiary companies of Philip Morris International (PMI) initiated an investment arbitration claim at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arbitration panel of the World Bank. PMI alleged that two of Uruguay’s tobacco control laws violated a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with Switzerland. PMI brought the claim after legal challenges in Uruguay’s domestic courts by the Philip Morris subsidiaries had failed. The panel of three arbitrators published their ruling on July 8, 2016, dismissing all PMI’s claims and awarding Uruguay its legal costs ($7 million).
The two “Challenged Measures” required:
1. Large graphic health warnings covering 80% of the front and back of cigarette packets; and
2. The Single Presentation Requirement (SPR) that limited each cigarette brand to just a single variant or brand type (eliminating brand families to address evidence that some variants can mislead consumers and falsely imply some cigarettes are less harmful than others).
PMI alleged that the 80% health warnings left insufficient room on the packs for it to use its trademarks and branding as they were intended, and the SPR meant it could not market some of its brands such as Marlboro Gold. PMI therefore alleged that Uruguay had breached the terms of the BIT because the Challenged Measures: Expropriated the property rights in PMI’s trademarks without compensation; were arbitrary as they were not supported by evidence to show they would work and so did not accord PMI with Fair and Equitable Treatment; did not meet PMI’s Legitimate Expectations of a stable regulatory environment or to be able to use their brand assets to make a profit; and that the Uruguayan courts had not dealt properly or fairly with PMI’s domestic legal challenges such that there was a Denial of Justice.
Philip Morris sought an order for the repeal of the Challenged Measures and for compensation in the region of $25 million.
The tribunal’s findings
This highly anticipated award addressed a number of fundamental legal issues concerning the balance between investor rights and the space available for states’ to regulate for public health. While there is no doctrine of binding precedent in international arbitration law, the development of an investment treaty case law and jurisprudence means that the wider value of each award can be very significant. This ruling highlighted the importance of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in setting tobacco control objectives and establishing the evidence base for measures, and confirmed that states therefore need not recreate local evidence. It addressed the wide ‘margin of appreciation’ and deference provided to sovereign states in adopting measures or decisions concerning public health. The tribunal also identified that a state need not prove a direct causal link between the measure and any observed public health outcomes – rather that it was sufficient that measures are an attempt to address a public health concern and taken in good faith.
The ruling sets an extremely high bar for any foreign investor seeking to bring an investment arbitration challenge against a non-discriminatory public health measure that has a legitimate objective and that has been taken in good faith.