Sackcloth and ashes for National health spokesman after U2 cigar

By Mike Houlahan

National's associate health spokesman Jonathan Coleman admitted yesterday he made a mistake by sitting in British American Tobacco's corporate box and smoking at the U2 concert - and says he has lost his taste for cigars.

A non-smoker barring "a cigar less than once a year", Dr Coleman said he apologised and accepted it was wrong for a health spokesman to be seen smoking.

"I didn't even get to finish the thing anyway. It's a very occasional thing, and I can tell you I've lost the taste for cigars over this whole incident, that's for sure."

The former GP and first-term Northcote MP was last week promoted by new National leader John Key to become the party's broadcasting spokesman.

He retained his health role, and anti-smoking groups yesterday said that job was inconsistent with accepting a seat in BAT's corporate box.

"I saw U2 in 1984 when I was in the seventh form and I saw them in 1993," Dr Coleman said yesterday. "A guy I know at BAT rang up and said: 'We're going to have a box, do you want to come along?' I thought this will be fantastic, and in hindsight that was an error of judgment I've definitely learned from.

"I think in retrospect I would have made some very different decisions, and I won't be accepting any hospitality from BAT in the future."

National front-bench MP Simon Power was also a guest in the box. "I've never held a health portfolio, so that wasn't something I factored a lot of consideration into. Maybe I should have, but I didn't," said Mr Power, who did not smoke a cigar that night.

The Sunday Star Times reported yesterday that Dr Coleman had been punched after he allegedly blew his cigar smoke at a woman. Dr Coleman said there were two sides to every story, but he did not intend to press charges over the incident.

Health Minister Pete Hodgson called Dr Coleman's behaviour a startling error of judgment.

"Smoking kills thousands of New Zealanders every year," he said.

"We are making tremendous progress on reducing smoking rates in this country and it is extremely disappointing that the National Party is failing to show leadership on this issue."

Smokefree Coalition director Mark Peck - a former Labour MP - said Dr Coleman had committed an unbelievable lapse.

"Dr Coleman was at a recent function at Parliament that highlighted the harms caused by using misleading descriptors such as light and mild on tobacco packets," he said. "I'm also amazed a GP who has seen the ravages of tobacco-related illnesses would smoke and subject others to his second-hand smoke. It calls into question his understanding of tobacco control and his judgment."

Mr Key said he accepted Dr Coleman had learned a lesson. "He is a new MP, still learning to live his life under a microscope. Let's keep this in perspective."

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