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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Liquor and tobacco fight back

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There are many legislation changes surrounding the tobacco and alcohol industries. Photo / Thinkstock
There are many legislation changes surrounding the tobacco and alcohol industries. Photo / Thinkstock

The responses of the tobacco and alcohol industries to the gradual but remorseless legislative assault on their profitability would be comical if they were not so transparent.

Multinational cigarette company Philip Morris has embarked on an aggressive fightback against laws and price rises intended to put pressure on smokers to quit the habit. From tomorrow, shops will have to hide the bright cigarette displays that provide a lucratively eye-catching backdrop to the casual purchase of petrol or milk. Other measures, such as plain packaging, are being considered.

The industry argues that the regulations go too far - it does not say too far for what, but it means too far for its shareholders. On websites such as myopinioncounts.co.nz, it seeks to alert customers to the way the heavy hand of the state is crushing their freedom of choice and encourages them to make their voices heard. But now that the gloves are off, it will not be long before flocks of highly paid lawyers begin circling, armed with the brief to challenge the laws' legitimacy under international trade agreements.

Meanwhile, the managing directors of the four heavyweight drinks companies met Justice Minister Judith Collins at the Beehive on Monday and urged her to quash a law change that will limit the alcohol content of so-called alcopops, aimed at young women.

The fact that the companies sent their big guns to the meeting showed how much is at stake for them. Industry figures show ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages make up 12 per cent of the annual local alcohol market: 180 million are sold each year, most in off-licence outlets.

The approaches of both industries are irresistibly reminiscent of what George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four called Doublethink: the ability to use distorted facts while genuinely believing in them, to forget any truth that has become inconvenient.

It is certainly hard to conceive of a better example than the tobacco industry's opposition to the proposal that cigarettes be sold in plain packaging. Its argument is that it will infringe their intellectual property rights and not reduce smoking rates. If the latter remark were true, of course, the industry would warmly embrace the idea, since it would enable it to drastically cut packaging costs with no associated loss of revenue.

The liquor industry, for its part, seeks to defend the indefensible. In resisting controls over drinks specifically targeted at young female drinkers and clearly implicated in harmful youth drinking, it seeks to protect its profit margins, regardless of the well-documented social costs. It's hard to read that as other than profoundly cynical.

The fact that Collins met with industry heavyweights at a time when the review of alcohol laws is supposed to have been completed is disturbing. Groups who support the planned restrictions are being granted no such audience. If there is any last-minute dilution of the legislation the Minister will have some serious explaining to do.

The alcohol industry has got off lightly from alcohol reform: to the understandable chagrin of Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who chaired the Law Commission inquiry that called for sweeping changes, the Government has not moved to increase excise tax or enforce minimum pricing. It has also quite failed to confront the thorny questions of alcohol advertising and alcohol-related sponsorship.

Many submissions both to the commission and to the select committee considering alcohol-reform legislation expressed deep misgiving about alcohol sponsorship of sport. But the Rugby Union told the committee that the sport should be "leveraging its status and political strength more to mitigate the risk [to sponsorship] or even turn it into a more positive commercial outcome for brewery partners".

The pushback against tobacco, boldly led by Maori MPs whose consituencies are most ravaged by smoking, is laudable, and industry opposition should be resisted. We need the same political will to rein in the alcohol lobby as well.

- Herald on Sunday

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