Jonathan Milne 's Opinion

Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Jonathan Milne: Tobacco's a killer, however it's packaged

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Manchester brand cigarettes are illegally smuggled into Australia, carry no health warnings and sell for as little as A$6.
Manchester brand cigarettes are illegally smuggled into Australia, carry no health warnings and sell for as little as A$6.

Saturday morning in the newsroom, and reports come in of an Air New Zealand flight turning back to make an emergency landing as the cockpit fills with smoke. Visiting pop star Taylor Swift is missing in action, a large exotic flower at Auckland Council's Wintergarden is about to flower for the first time in seven years, and a bunch of meathead motorheads are gathering for the Lundy Three Hundy in Palmerston North.

Damn, I feel like a cigarette.

It's been three months, though, since the Herald on Sunday began its Quitters campaign in partnership with Auckland University's Centre for Tobacco Control Research.

As part of that campaign - to help New Zealanders help their friends and family give up the noxious baccy - I entered a team of 10 Herald staff in the first nationwide Wero quit smoking competition.

It has proved harder than we expected. Only three of us have managed to quit smoking entirely over the three-month contest.

I lapsed once, after a few too many drinks at the Herald's 150th birthday party last month.

But I'm determined to stay clean - I want to be there to see my kids grow up.

So instead, I wander downstairs with another journalist from our team, and stand far too close to him as he smokes a cigarette. The smell is tantalising.

The Government, too, is finding it hard to quit the addictive revenue it makes from tobacco. Now, it is slow-pedalling the introduction of unbranded cigarettes, as the tobacco industry takes the fight to a new level.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, who has vowed that the crackdown on Big Tobacco will be her legacy when she retires next year, expresses frustration at delays to the introduction of her plain packaging bill.

She wants the sale of tobacco banned - but that would cost the Government $1.3 billion a year in excise tax.

Her plain-packaging bill was to have been introduced before Christmas, but she now concedes it won't see the light of day before February. Her bill to end the duty-free tobacco quota is still more remote.

Her proposed ban on smoking in private cars, for the protection of children, has been vetoed entirely.

Turia insists the delays are purely bureaucratic - though they will also, conveniently, allow the Government to observe the progress of international legal action that tobacco exporting nations, including Indonesia and Ukraine, have taken against Australia.

Turia denies the Cabinet is stalling: "No, definitely not," she told the Herald on Sunday. "I would have got on their case if I thought that."

Today is the first anniversary of plain packaging in Australia.

Tobacco heavyweight Philip Morris International will this week publish research by the London Economics consultancy showing no decline in smoking in the 12 months since the unbranded cigarettes with super-sized, graphic health warnings were introduced.

Moreover, research the big tobacco companies commissioned from KPMG shows an increase in demand for counterfeit and contraband cigarettes in that 12 months.

In October, the Australian Federal Police and border protection agencies, announced they had busted the biggest organised illicit tobacco smuggling syndicate in Australia's history - but the contraband keeps coming.

Smuggled branded cigarettes (dubbed "illegal whites") made in Asia for the Australian market, are booming. One illegal brand, Manchester, which carries no health warnings and is subject to no regulation of its toxin levels, has taken 1.3 per cent of the Australian retail market. A pack of 20 Manchester cigarettes sells for as little as A$6 ($6.70), against more than A$18 for some legal brands.

Manchester cigarettes have not been reported in New Zealand, but there is a small trade in illicit cigarettes that tobacco companies believe will boom when plain packaging becomes compulsory.

Philip Morris' director of corporate affairs, Chris Argent, says smugglers and criminals have been the big winners from plain packaging, and the Government treasury has been the loser.

"Consumption of illegal, branded cigarettes, some of which now enjoy higher market share than legal brands in Australia, has increased by 154 per cent," he says. "Neither smoking rates nor total tobacco consumption have declined."

But Turia angrily rejects the tobacco industry research, saying "of course they'll say that.

I have no interest in what these merchandisers of death say.

"They come to me and make it sound like plain-packaging tobacco is no different to Cadbury versus Nestle. Well, we know that branding is very important."

Out the back of the Herald building, I resist the temptation to bludge a cigarette from my colleague, and we return to the office.

Good news, too, from Auckland airport - the smoke-filled plane was a false alarm.

There was smoke, but no fire.

- Herald on Sunday

Jonathan Milne

Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Jonathan Milne is a former reporter and deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday. He specialised in politics and education. He won awards for his newspaper and magazine journalism in New Zealand and the UK.

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