MPs' panel gets to heart of smoking

By Derek Cheng

Mohi Waihi, of Upper Hutt, with his old heart after giving evidence at the Maori Affairs select committee inquiry. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mohi Waihi, of Upper Hutt, with his old heart after giving evidence at the Maori Affairs select committee inquiry. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Mohi Waihi is a 64-year-old Maori man with the heart of a 40-year-old woman.

He had a heart transplant in 2005 after suffering five heart attacks, brought on by heart disease.

Yesterday, the former heavy smoker brought his old heart to the Maori Affairs select committee, which is holding an inquiry into the tobacco industry.

Wrapped in plastic, the heart was a cream-coloured blob the size of a pair of fists with a surface covered in layers of hardened fat flabs.

Mr Waihi introduced it as he would a pet: "It's not going to bite you."

As the shocking specimen made its way around the room, Mr Waihi told of how he smoked from the age of 19 until his transplant, even though his health started deteriorating in his 40s.

"I have a woman's heart inside me, and I don't have a problem with that. I'm just so glad I'm here."

The committee showed the heart to representatives from the Phillip Morris tobacco company, whose general manager, Martin Inkster, and regulatory strategy director, Nerida White, had previously failed to front up to the inquiry.

They spent most of their time fending off the suggestion that they were in a business void of moral fibre.

They agreed that smoking was unhealthy and addictive, and supported licences for retailers to show they are properly educated and revoking them if, for example, they sell cigarettes to minors.

But when they said they supported public health initiatives, they were left defending a contradictory strategy: how to encourage people to quit smoking on one hand, while using the other to sell the same product.

Ms White said Phillip Morris published its products' ingredients on its website, but chairman Hone Harawira replied that it only did that to comply with a law change that required it.

The rest of the inquisition descended into a series of denials:

No, we do not market to youths or ethnic groups. Tobacco displays are not marketing, but a tool to help people differentiate between products.

No, we do not support regulating cigarette additives because they don't make a cigarette more toxic, nor do they manipulate the nicotine content.

No, we don't sponsor events, but only pay a fee to sell our product there.

We know nothing of old press statements targeting teenagers. We only seek a greater market share of existing smokers.

Mr Inkster's answers became repetitive, but the tone of the hearing did not wane. He had to endure a final barrage of questions from the inquiry chairman.

Mr Harawira: Do you agree that tobacco displays attract young people?

Mr Inkster: I don't know.

Mr Harawira: Does your company accept accountability for the 5000 deaths that are caused by smoking every year?

Mr Inkster: Any loss, any illness, is upsetting, and I lost two grandparents to smoking-related illness.

Mr Harawira: Do you smoke?

Mr Inkster: No ... because it's harmful and I don't like it.

Mr Waihi would not disagree. With both of his whole hearts.

- NZ Herald

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