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Big Tobacco scrambles to change government's mind on plain packaging

"Brand confiscation" would not reduce smoking,and would break WTO rules, says Philip Morris man. But is one of the world's most powerful lobbies any match for MMP backroom politics as the National Party seeks to keep the anti-smoking Maori Pa

NBR staff
Sun, 10 Jun 2012

Big tobacco is still trying to talk the government out of its plain packaging plan for cigarettes.

But it is still unclear if one of the world's most powerful lobbies will be any match for MMP backroom politics as the National Party seeks to keep the anti-smoking Maori Party onside.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris says plain packaging “will breach trade treaties”, but won’t speculate on legal action.

Speaking on TV One's Q+A, spokesman Christopher Bishop said, "If it goes ahead with plain packaging, will be breaking the rules of the World Trade Organization by setting up a two-tier system for trademark rights.”

It was too early to say if Philip Morris would sue the government, Mr Bishop said - as it has after a similar move across the Tasman (where branded packaging has been replaced by grisly health warning images).

Plain packaging on the way
On April 19, cabinet agreed "in principle" to plain packaging - in part as a sop to keep the Maori Party in line - but without any set timetable.

From July 23, supermarkets, dairies and other retailers will be banned from openly displaying packets of cigarettes or tobacco.

The Associate Minister of Health, Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, describes plain packaging as "the logical next step," and a key part of the broad government goal to make New Zealand smoke-free by 2025.

Won't work
Mr Bishop also questioned whether plain packaging will be effective.

“There aren’t any studies to suggest that plain packaging will work at stopping people from taking up smoking or helping them to quit smoking,” he said.

His company would try to convince the government the strategy would not work.

"Taking away the branding from our packs will not reduce smoking initiation and experimentation,” he said.

He maintained the display ban from July 23 won’t harm cigarette sales.

Mr Bishop said the aim of a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025 was "unrealistic" given around 20% of the population smoke at present.

Double standard on alcohol
The National-led government has no policy to eventually ban the sale of tobacco to achieve its smoke-free aim. But Mr Bishop added, for good measure: “If you make smoking illegal, organised criminals will sell to minors and they won’t pay tax on the product, and that should concern everyone.”

He also accused the government of double standards.

“Thailand is introducing health warnings on alcohol bottles, and New Zealand is arguing against that, saying it’s a breach of the rules. But in the next breath, New Zealand is turning around at the same organisation and saying that plain packaging of cigarettes is acceptable,” Mr Bishop said - apparently unaware that Justice Minister Judith Collins has recently said she will consider warnings on bottles.

Thanks you for smoking
Asked by interviewer Greg Boyd, "Do you smoke?"

Mr Bishop replied, "I enjoy and occasional cigarette, yeah."

When Mr Boyd asked if he accepted "all the bad stuff that goes with it," Mr Bishop replied. "Yes, absolutely. It’s a dangerous product that’s harmful to your health."

Thank you for smoking
Mr Boyd also raised a line from an RJ Reynolds executive (unaware he was on the record) who was asked whether he smoked.

"'Are you kidding?," the executive is quoted by The New York Times. "We reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.''

Mr Bishop replied, "I haven’t seen that quote before, but I can certainly tell you it’s not a prevalent attitude amongst Philip Morris. We have great respect for our customers, and we have great respect for the people who make the decision to smoke."

Watch the full interview here.

NBR staff
Sun, 10 Jun 2012
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Big Tobacco scrambles to change government's mind on plain packaging