Liam Dann on business

Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, Liam Dann, discusses New Zealand and international financial matters

Liam Dann: Duty to protect our kids trumps tobacco's case

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

For capitalism to work properly the companies that bring us wonderful shiny things such as smartphones, or services like insurance and banking, need to have security about the rules for doing business. Property rights and the security of intellectual property are crucial to provide a platform for a healthy, thriving economy.

But British American Tobacco seems to be under the misapprehension that it can sell a poisonous, addictive drug and still demand the same rights as any other corporate entity.

British American's New Zealand general manager, Steve Rush, says plain packaging proposals create a "disturbing precedent" for other industries.

They don't.

All rights in a civilised society - be they personal or corporate - come with an obligation of social responsibility. And a society has a right to decide how these highly subjective calls are made. It always has. There is no precedent.

"If I Create It I Should Own It" say the adverts produced for British American Tobacco by international agency Maxus.

Sure, take it. It is yours, but if society decides that your intellectual property is not fit for publication then you will have to keep it to yourself.

Stick your slick stylised fonts and focus group-tested colour schemes up on the walls of your head office - it's your property, it's your right to enjoy it.

But nothing, no free trade deal or international treaty will ever trump the right of a society to protect its young from harm.

Let's get real about the packaging debate. This is a battle for the next generation of potential smokers.

Addicted smokers will buy tobacco whether is is wrapped in gold leaves or old sackcloth. They just want a nicotine fix.

Tobacco companies base their arguments on the fallacy that smokers are all adults exercising their freedom. That is nonsense.

Most adults addicted to tobacco made the "choice" to start smoking in their teens when - as new research is making clear - their brains were not fully developed.

If you become physically addicted to a substance - particularly while your brain is maturing - then the addiction is hardwired. You might manage to quit smoking but you will live with the addiction, however diminished, for life.

If the tobacco industry wants us to apply commercial law with unwavering consistency then perhaps we should do just that.

We should include tobacco with the other legal highs being regulated out of existence by Peter Dunne's new legislation. That legislation puts the onus on distributors of legal highs to prove their product is safe.

When tobacco has been proved safe for human consumption we can invite British American back to display its wares however it sees fit.

We won't do that, though, because drug law is not consistent and never has been.

Tobacco has a long and complex history of use within our culture.

Like the alcohol industry, it finds itself in the privileged position of being tolerated while distributors of other popular but harmful substances - cannabis, cocaine and all the rest - are deemed criminal.

Arguing the toss on which substances are most harmful or most addictive is fraught. It is historical and cultural reasons - not scientific - which define the status quo.

Given the privileged cultural position tobacco companies have been afforded, it is hypocritical of them to complain when they are then regulated based on cultural expectations.

And if a democratically elected government is more permissive of one drug than another - as is the case with National's attitude to alcohol - that is too bad. It is a political call and governments are entitled to reflect the whims of the people.

That's why all the scientific arguments in the world won't see cannabis legalised unless there is some huge shift in public opinion.

The tobacco industry wants consistency but its own arguments on branding are inconsistent.

On the one hand it claims that branding and design are of little significance with regard to making smoking more attractive. On the other hand it lobbies at huge cost to maintain those brands.

There is the old argument that packaging is all just inter-brand warfare - that the Marlboro red appeals to one kind of consumer and the Benson & Hedges gold to another. That sense of self-identification with a brand is important in advertising.

It might convince us to choose one kind of jeans over another. But it is the combined effect of all the stylish advertising from the apparel industry that keeps denim cool and hip for each new generation.

As there is little evidence that denim is more dangerous than, say, corduroy - other than in a fashion sense - it would be wrong for a government to get involved in regulating trouser advertising.

If there was clear evidence that denim was deadly, it would be wrong for it not to.

So, we must provide clear and consistent rules for business and we should do it because we want commerce to thrive.

But sorry British American Tobacco, the overwhelming consensus in this country in 2012 is that we do not want your company to thrive.

We want it to wither and die.

We should apply our intellectual property law as consistently as is required to achieve that result.

- NZ Herald

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