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SYDNEY (Reuters) - 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 with Big Tobacco ahead of a legal battle over plain-packaging laws.
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 that the use of the Australian icon to sell cigarettes was outrageous.
The image of a kangaroo, similar to road warning signs seen in Australia, with the phrase "An Australian Favourite" appears on packets of Winfield cigarettes being 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 on Friday.
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 which comes into force in 2012 is being closely watched by governments considering similar moves 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.
Industry analysts say tobacco companies are worried that plain packaging could spread to important emerging markets like Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, and threaten growth there.
Legal experts have predicted both legal and WTO 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 A$10 billion in 2009, up from A$8.3 billion in 2008, although smoking generally has been in decline. About 22 billion cigarettes are sold in the country each year.
Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry