Tobacco workers urged to lobby on packaging

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2013

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Tobacco company bosses have "encouraged" their workers to take a stand on plain packaging, part of a global effort to kill off the proposal.

Submissions to the Government's tobacco plain packaging proposal released under the Official Information Act show 16 Imperial Tobacco employees registered their opposition.

They are part of a large international opposition to the proposal, which includes hints at legal action by New Zealand's three biggest tobacco companies.

The employees - who all asked the Health Ministry not to disclose their names - argued plain packaging would boost black market tobacco and not reduce smoking.

Imperial Tobacco confirmed in a statement that it had encouraged employees to have their say.

"We have . . . kept employees informed of developments and encouraged them to make a submission during the consultation."

None of the workers who submitted to the proposal supported plain packaging.

About 300 submissions were released by the Health Ministry after intervention by the Ombudsman. The ministry initially refused to release the submissions, claiming they were confidential.

The submissions reveal intense international opposition to plain packaging in New Zealand.

The big three tobacco companies have been supported by overseas lobby groups - many with known links to the tobacco industry.

In one case, the exact submission was lodged by eight cigar companies based from Germany to the Dominican Republic.

Overseas organisations condemning plain packaging include the US Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Legal Foundation, which describes itself as a freedom and justice advocate.

New Zealand tobacco retailers have also come out strongly against the proposal, as have several national retailer groups with links to the industry.

Imperial Tobacco said while it had "consulted" some international organisations about the plain packaging proposal, these groups were independent.

New Zealand's three biggest tobacco companies - British American Tobacco New Zealand, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris (New Zealand) - have all hinted at legal action in their submissions, claiming plain packaging would infringe their commercial freedom.

Imperial Tobacco accused the Government of "paying lip service" to consultation and objected to submitters being required to disclose any links to the industry.

Action on Smoking and Health New Zealand spokesman Michael Colhoun said the level of opposition was not surprising and was a sort of backhand vote of confidence. "It's called a scream test," he said. "When the [tobacco] industry kicks up a fuss, it generally shows that it will be an effective measure in reducing smoking."

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Despite the opposition, Mr Colhoun said he was confident plain packaging would become a reality. "It got through in Australia."

Plain packaging laws came into force in Australia last month after an unsuccessful legal challenge from Japan Tobacco International SA and British American Tobacco Australasia.

The tobacco companies claimed the Government had stolen their intellectual property, but the High Court disagreed, calling their argument "flawed".

Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, all funded by the industry, are challenging Australia at the World Trade Organisation.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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