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August 28th, 2012:

John Loof: Tobacco is a dying industry however you view it

By John Loof

5:30 AM Tuesday Aug 28, 2012

Tobacco companies are demanding the right to sell more cigarettes in New Zealand. Photo / PeterMeecham

The argument against plain packaging is based on perverse logic, writes John Loof, chief executive of the Cancer Society Auckland.

A corporate giant came out last week with a major public relations campaign. It issued a statement on its website saying it acknowledges that its product is harmful. At first view you would think it should be congratulated for its frankness.

Most of us would then expect this organisation to say something like, “and we are doing everything in our power to reduce the harm to our customers.”

Strangely, this organisation has no such plans. Its aim is to continue to manufacture this product, to gain greater market share and to find new customers.

Imagine for a moment a car maker, an electronics company or food manufacturer stating that its product was indeed harmful but that it had no intention of doing anything about it. There would be calls for legal action, a recall of products and the public would likely abandon that particular brand in droves. Regrettably, this isn’t an easy choice for consumers in this example as they are chemically addicted to the product.

By now you have probably guessed that the corporate giant in this scenario is British American Tobacco, which has launched a campaign to persuade us that plain packaging of cigarettes is a bad idea.

It is a real Alice in Wonderland moment when a company acknowledges the harm done by its products while campaigning for more marketing freedom. The Australian Government hasn’t been fooled by this perverse logic and it appears our Health Minister, Tony Ryall, doesn’t buy it either.

All manner of dire consequences are predicted by the tobacco industry, such as the growth of a black market and violations of international trade agreements. There is no evidence to suggest that smokers will seek out criminal gangs for a pack of Rothmans and if there are fewer smokers there will be no demand for black market cigarettes anyway.

The trade agreement argument is a particularly shameful and immoral one. Tobacco companies are demanding the right to sell more cigarettes in New Zealand against the policies of our democratically elected Government which is seeking to improve health outcomes for its citizens.

The highest court in Australia ruled this as being unconstitutional and hopefully this was a show of strength and purpose that has put the tobacco industry on notice that it has a real fight on its hands.

Every year 5000 New Zealanders lose their lives to smoking-related diseases.

Opponents of tobacco control often point to a simplistic and ideological solution by saying the Government should either make tobacco illegal or leave it alone. Organisations like the Cancer Society and those working in the field of public health wish it were that easy.

If it were possible to prohibit tobacco tomorrow we would do it, but lessons learned from alcohol prohibition and control of illegal drugs need to be heeded.

Our Government has set a target to be a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025. To do this requires a number of strong measures including tax increases, continued support for people to quit, more smoke-free spaces and places where children aren’t surrounded and influenced by adults who are smoking.

We have removed the ubiquitous marketing displays of tobacco products in the corner dairy and now it is time to further reduce the marketing opportunities available to tobacco companies by introducing plain packaging. There is much evidence that children find the bright colours on the packets appealing and recognise cigarette branding from a very early age.

Research tells us that in New Zealand children as young as 14 are starting to smoke. We also know that if people are not smoking by the age of 18 they are unlikely to start. This categorically means that the key target audience to increase the uptake of tobacco products is people in their early teens who are very susceptible to marketing tactics and packaging.

In years to come there will likely be further restrictions on the sale and purchase of tobacco products. All these practical measures will result in the percentage of adults who smoke reducing inexorably from today’s figure of around 20 per cent to less than 5 per cent by 2025.

The proverb “He muka no te taura whiri” tells us that it takes many strands to make one rope. We know we need a very strong rope to haul back the tobacco industry from continuing to profit at the expense of the lives of New Zealanders. British American Tobacco should pause and reflect very carefully on the real meaning of its own words. It needs to once and for all recognise that it is part of a literally dying industry.

We may not be able to rewrite history for the tens of thousands of people who have died as a result of a tobacco-related illness but we can begin to build a healthier smoke-free future for our children.

By John Loof