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GENEVA, Oct 14 (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization will not rule on a legal challenge to Australia's landmark tobacco packaging laws until at least the first half of 2016, the panel of judges said on Tuesday, a delay that could slow anti-tobacco laws elsewhere.
Australia's "plain packaging" rules ban colourful logos and are seen by public health advocates as heralding a new era of tobacco control. But Cuba, Indonesia, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Ukraine say the laws are an illegal restriction on trade.
Both supporters and opponents say such restrictions could spread to alcohol and some foods with high sugar or fat content, making the WTO case far more wide-reaching than Australia's own tobacco policies.
Many other countries around the world are waiting for the outcome of the case before deciding to adopt similar restrictions on tobacco packaging, although some have lost patience with repeated delays at the WTO and begun legislating.
Normally a panel should rule on a trade dispute within six months from the date that it starts work, but a bottleneck of increasingly demanding and large trade disputes has caused many cases to get delayed.
Even if the panel's decision is announced in the first half of 2016, the result can be appealed by either side, meaning the final outcome may not be known until late 2016 or 2017. (Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by John Stonestreet)