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Save lives and don’t buckle to tobacco industry on plain packaging

Cigarette packaging is a battleground fought over by the anti-smoking lobby and the tobacco industry.

OPINION: In March 2011, the Government committed to becoming the first country in the world to be smokefree by 2025, an innovative goal to reduce the smoking prevalence to lower than 5 per cent.

To help achieve this the Government introduced tobacco plain packaging legislation in April 2012.

Australia became the first country to enact plain packaging in November 2011, taking 19 months to bring the legislation to completion.

It was followed earlier this year by Ireland (22 months) and the United Kingdom (35 months). The legislation in New Zealand is still awaiting its second reading, after more than 38 months, with no clear date from the Government on when it will proceed.

To understand the lack of progress in New Zealand it is imperative to recognise the importance of tobacco industry delay tactics.

These have been exposed through litigation in the United States and made publically available through the Legacy library – an archive that contains more than 80 million pages of previously secret tobacco industry documents.

My own research analysing these documents has revealed that, during the early 1990s, tobacco companies became increasingly worried about an innovative idea like plain packaging (first proposed in Canada and Australia) as it would severely regulate the branding and marketing of their products.

In response, they requested legal opinions on the legality of restricting and prohibiting use of their trademarks and were told privately that international treaties afforded little protection.

However, publically, the companies threatened to sue the Canadian and Australian governments for billions of dollars causing both governments to withdraw their proposals, which successfully delayed tobacco plain packaging for decades. The companies also recognised that they couldn’t let any future plain packaging proposal be treated as a public health issue. Instead the focus must remain on convoluted arguments surrounding the expropriation of trademarks and intellectual property.

Fast-forward to today and the New Zealand Government is facing the same trade threats from tobacco companies. In response it has repeatedly said it would have to “wait and see” what happens with two legal trade challenges by Philip Morris International against the plain packaging policy in Australia before proceeding.

I have spent the last couple of weeks in Auckland and Wellington interviewing health advocates, legal scholars, and Government officials to investigate New Zealand’s pending plain packaging legislation. While some interviewees recognised the lack of political will, an overwhelmingly number of interviewees cited the pending trade lawsuits against Australia as having a direct impact on the lack of progress in New Zealand.

My research suggests tobacco industry trade threats and challenges are having a chilling effect and attempt to pre-empt Government regulatory authority. However, early analysis also suggests the Government, and more importantly the media, continues to frame this issue around international trade instead of highlighting the impact of tobacco, which in New Zealand kills approximately 5000 people a year (about 13 people a day) and severely affects marginalised populations, especially Maori women.

If your Government continues to succumb to tobacco industry pressure and treat plain packaging as an international trade and investment issue they run the risk of breaking their own promise and commitment to become smokefree by 2025.

Eric Crosbie is a PhD student at the University of Arizona. He visited New Zealand in early June as part of his research into the influence of tobacco companies on political process.

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