Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Plain-package law debate kicks off with warning

Tobacco-producing countries Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Indonesia expressed strong opposition to the plain packaging proposal. Photo / File
Tobacco-producing countries Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Indonesia expressed strong opposition to the plain packaging proposal. Photo / File

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia has kicked off the parliamentary debate on plain packaging of cigarettes with a warning to tobacco companies not to meddle in New Zealand affairs.

Mrs Turia, who is charge of the bill, told MPs this afternoon that tobacco companies had long been creating brands to persuade people that smoking was glamorous and sophisticated.

Her law change would remove the last avenue of marketing for manufacturers by requiring all tobacco to be sold in bland packets with standardised font and colour and covered by large health warnings.

She said that as a grandmother with nearly 50 grandchildren, she was acutely aware of the effect of branding on a young person's psyche.

"What really matters is not so much about being neat and tidy, but more that your socks have the tick strategically placed, the shirt is emblazoned with the latest label, the cap is the right colour and the right look.

"And so when I read the research revealing that consumers buy branded products as much for their symbolic value as for their utility it made perfect sense.

"In essence, the decision to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products in New Zealand is all about the branding - it takes away the last means of promoting tobacco as a desirable product."

Mrs Turia said that in 1990, extensive restrictions were placed on the traditional forms of advertising for cigarettes.

"Quarter of a century later, tobacco companies have deliberately used packaging design and appearance to make their products appear more desirable and to promote their use."

The bill would make it an offence to make or sell tobacco in branded packets, with a maximum fine of $600,000 for a company for breaching the rules.

The minister applauded the cross-party support for anti-smoking policy, and noted other important measures such as annual tax hikes and a ban on displaying tobacco products at shop counters.

Mrs Turia said she was confident that the bill was consistent with New Zealand's international trade obligations.

She also took a shot at businesses and lobby groups which have hinted that they would take legal action if New Zealand introduced plain packaging.

"While the tobacco industry may have laid down a threat that if this legislation is passed my message to them is that our country has a sovereign right and a legal right to protect its citizens.

"I am firmly of the opinion that it is not for any tobacco company to be telling us what we should be doing in our own land."

Earlier today, Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser said New Zealand had been expecting the possibility of a legal challenge over the tobacco plain-packaging law with or without the Trans Pacific Partnership being negotiated.

"Let's face it, the Australians are in the midst of a legal challenge [over its plain packaging law] and TPP doesn't exist," he told reporters at Parliament today.

"We are fully expecting the possibility of a legal challenge, TPP or not."

He said the Government could never protect an individual or a future government from the possibility of legal challenge.

"The key thing is to get the legal framework as robust as you can , so we can bat it back because we are very committed to a smoke-free policy [by 2025]."

Like other trade deals, the TPP is expected to include a chapter on investor-state disputes procedures allowing private companies to sue Governments if laws erode the value of a company.

However, it is also expected to have exceptions, including the ability of Governments to make law in the interests of public health.

Mr Groser said he would not negotiate the TPP through the media "but you know the No 1 thing is for the New Zealand Government to ensure is that it doesn't limit any future New Zealand Government's ability to legislate on public health."

He made his comments after Labour leader David Cunliffe said the plain-packaging tobacco legislation to be debated later today should be passed through its stages without delay and accused the Government of "running scared of tobacco interests".

While the Government bill providing for mandatory plain packaging on cigarettes will get a first reading later today, its final passage will be stalled until a World Trade Organisation case against Australia's plain-packaging law has been concluded.

"I think that is regrettable," Mr Cunliffe said this morning. "I think the best way through this would be for New Zealand to take a very clear and upfront position on plain packaging."

Mr Cunliffe said there was a risk that an American or other tobacco company could sue the New Zealand Government for loss of profits if it introduced plain packaging under a tribunal established under the TPP.

"The counter-argument is that there may be...language that protects things like public health and the normal regulatory process. We don't know because we haven't seen the draft and the New Zealand public needs to."

Mr Cunliffe in Parliament this afternoon called on the Government to release the text of the TPP agreement before the Cabinet signs it - although not until the negotiations have concluded.

His motion to have the issue debated was blocked by the Government, as can be done by any member on a motion without notice.

When asked earlier if Labour had conducted negotiations with China for a free trade agreement in the same way as the current Government was negotiating TPP, Mr Cunliffe said: "We took a different approach to full and open briefings by including folks like environmental and labour groups on our delegations so they were briefed as the negotiations were going on.

"The current Government has not done that. What the current Government has done is negotiate effectively in secret."

- NZ Herald

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