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NZ monitors Australian plain packaging bid

28 June 2011

THE New Zealand minister who wants cigarettes sold in plain packets says she won’t be deterred by threats of legal action by a tobacco company against the Australian government.

However, Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia can’t confirm the government will go ahead with the policy.

“We’re keeping an eye on Australia, we want to align our work with the work they’re doing over there,” she told One News.

“It’s something that needs to be looked into really carefully – we don’t want to get ourselves into a situation where we’re wasting a lot of taxpayer money fighting these tobacco companies because they’re incredibly wealthy.”

Philip Morris has served a notice of legal claim on the Australian government, which sets a mandatory three-month period for the two sides to negotiate an outcome.

“Failing that, we aim to go ahead with a compensation claim for the loss to our business in Australia that would result from plain packaging,” the company said.

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Plain packaging in Australia is due to start in a year’s time, which would make it the first country in the world to enforce the anti-smoking measure.

The action Philip Morris is taking is under a trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong, and New Zealand has a similar treaty which covers intellectual property such as trademarks.

Philip Morris is arguing its trademark is protected and plain packaging will be detrimental to it.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman says Philip Morris could use the same tactic against New Zealand.

“It shows how dangerous these investment rights treaties are when a multi-national company has more rights than a sovereign government to regulate in the interests of public health,” he said.

Should Philip Morris win, the Australian government could have to pay billions in compensation.

The Greens, and academic Jane Kelsey, are also concerned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is being negotiated could cause similar problems.

“We call on the government to release the draft text of the intellectual property section of the TPP talks with the USA,” Dr Norman said.

“We need to know what rights our government is handing over to Philip Morris in those negotiations.”

The Public Health Association (PHA) said it was “appalled” by news of the legal action.

“It is beyond immoral that a business that sells addictive killers to young people is now threatening court action,” said PHA national executive director Dr Gay Keating.

“The PHA applauds Canberra for its courage and leadership in standing up to the bully tactics and hopes the New Zealand government is watching closely.”

The Smokefree Coalition said the industry knew plain packaging would hit it hard, and that was why it was “pulling out all the stops”.

“We expect our leaders will show the same guts and backbone when those threats start over here,” said coalition executive director Dr Prudence Stone.

Cancer Society chief executive Dalton Kelly said cigarette companies could see the writing on the wall.

“Smoking is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Australia is leading the world by introducing plain packaging and I hope New Zealand is not far behind.”

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