How far should governments go to save us from ourselves? The correct libertarian response is not very far at all. Whether it's gambling, alcohol or smoking, we should be free to make our own choices, they argue, even if it kills us.

Such is the price of freedom. That it should be preferred to the dreaded protectiveness of the nanny state goes without saying.

Blame it on the influence of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, whose seminal 1859 book On Liberty argued that, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

In Mill's view, the only freedom worthy of the name "is that of pursuing our own good in our own way ... Each is the guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual".


Just how helpful this thinking has been to the corporate world was illustrated by the response of Big Tobacco and its friends to the news that the Government has agreed in principle to follow Australia's lead and ban branded cigarette packs as part of its commitment to a smokefree New Zealand by 2025 (meaning less than 5 per cent of the population smoking).

Scarcely had Associate Minister of Health Tariana Turia made the announcement than the US Chamber of Commerce and a consortium of business groups issued a thinly veiled threat over the "possible impact on New Zealand exports, such as dairy and wine, should other governments feel emboldened to take similar measures".

A joint statement called on the Government to "place the effort in the well-intentioned, yet ill-advised, category". The tobacco industry's "legitimate trademark protection and branding" are "rights long protected under law and international treaties". The industry would take "every action necessary", said a spokeswoman. As in Australia, it's prepared to wage an expensive legal battle to hang on to those rights.

The bullying tone hasn't gone down well. Why should an industry that kills thousands of New Zealanders every year be able to claim such rights?

To her credit, Turia wasn't cowed: "We shouldn't be allowing tobacco companies to determine our domestic law. Our interest is not in profit, it is in the health and well-being of our communities." (Tell that to SkyCity.)

Turia's allies in the health sector are just as unapologetically interventionist and unlibertarian, as I was reminded at a Heart Foundation forum last week.

The heart charity was set up by a group of concerned cardiologists and business people in 1968, when the death rate from heart disease was at "epidemic" levels. Since then, it has funded more than $40 million of heart research. But while the death rate from cardiovascular disease has more than halved, it remains this country's number one killer. Heart disease kills more New Zealand women than all cancers combined, but gets far less attention.

The biggest risk factor is smoking. It leads to around 5000 smoking-related deaths a year, and costs the health sector around $2 billion a year. Not surprisingly, the Heart Foundation has little sympathy for arguments against the plain packaging of cigarettes, or the purported "rights" of tobacco companies to operate without restriction.


The tobacco industry has painted this latest move as an assault on smokers' freedoms as well as its own - and despite its shameful record it has found support for that view.

In Britain, an industry-funded smoking rights group has started a "Hands Off Our Packs" campaign.

As the Herald's Martin Johnston reports, the campaign decries the "denormalisation" of tobacco, saying it stigmatises smokers who "have done nothing wrong".

Should the insult to smokers' freedoms and wallets outweigh the insult to their health and the nation's health bill?

The industry claims plain packaging won't work (in which case, why are they worried?), but there's evidence it considers packaging an important part of marketing; cigarette packs aimed at younger women, for example, should look "slick, sleek, flashy, glittery, shiny, silky, bold", according to a Philip Morris document.

Turia and the Maori Party deserve praise for persuading a right-of-centre government to agree to the goal of a smokefree New Zealand, especially given the fierce resistance to anti-smoking legislation introduced by the Labour Government in 1990 and 2003.

The industry has fought every attempt to restrict its activities. Since 1990, though, the smoking rate has come down from 28 per cent to just under 20 per cent, and a recent survey of Year 10 students shows a growing number aren't taking up smoking.

There's still a long way to go, especially among the Maori and Pacific communities. Health researchers predict plain packaging will help further reduce the number of young people who take up smoking. Given most smokers get hooked before they turn 15, it seems at least worth a try.

This isn't about protecting communities from themselves but from those who prey on them. How far should public policy go? As far as it needs to. What Turia and public health experts know is that, as with other social hazards (gambling, loan sharks, and the proliferation of cut-price alcohol outlets in low-income communities) this has never been a fair fight.