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Plain tobacco packaging approved

If legal action is mounted against New Zealand's plain tobacco packaging plans, it could cost the government between $3m and $6m.

Georgina Bond and Rob Hosking
Tue, 19 Feb 2013

Hard-hitting controls over tobacco packaging have been approved by the Government.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia has just confirmed New Zealand will adopt plain packaging rules for tobacco products, in line with those introduced in Australia before Christmas.

Legislation will be introduced to force all tobacco products to be sold in plain, unbranded packets before the end of the year.

Announcing the decision on the controversial proposal, which she pushed for as co-leader of the Maori Party, Ms Turia says cigarette packets and tobacco pouches will be stripped of their logos.

All packets will have standardised packaging, fonts and type size. There will be "graphic warnings" on the packets, she says.

However, the government has put the brake on implementing the plan. The regulations to implement plain packaging will not be put in place until the outcome of the World Trade Organisation legal challenges against Australia are known.

Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have challenged the Australia’s plain packaging laws in the World Trade Organisation and Australia is now fighting what has been described as one of the biggest trade disputes it has ever faced as a defendant.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has warned there is a reasonably high risk a WTO dispute settlement case or investment arbitration could be brought against New Zealand if similar legislation is introduced.

Ms Turia acknowledges the government will have  to manage some legal risks. 

"I'm confident plain packaging will be introduced in line with those [trade agreement] obligations,” she says.

"It's up to the tobacco companies to decide what form any legal challenge will take.

"They are very litigious. As far as they are concerned we think we are up to any legal challenges they might make."

Ms Turia says a court case could cost the government anywhere between $3m and $6m.

When she was asked how much it might cost the government in compensation if the tobacco companies win, she replied: "They won't."

The Ministry of Health will start work on policy work immediately.

Consultation about the plain packaging plans, run through the MOH, ended in October and more than 20,000 submissions were received – the majority in opposition.

Businesses have largely opposed the plain packaging proposal because of the impact on New Zealand’s trade relationships and intellectual property rights.

Georgina Bond and Rob Hosking
Tue, 19 Feb 2013
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Plain tobacco packaging approved