Unicef is urging New Zealand politicians to implement plain packaging on tobacco products "without delay", saying they will have a strong defence against a legal challenge.
Former Minister of Youth Affairs Deborah Morris-Travers, who is now the national advocacy manager for Unicef New Zealand, said any delay to the passing of the Smoke Free Environments (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Amendment Bill would harm children.
The Health Select Committee is currently hearing submissions on legislation which would strip all company advertising, aside from a plain type name of the variant, from all tobacco packaging.
The controls of the legislation would not come into effect until up to 18 months after royal assent. Prime Minister John Key has indicated that it would not be sent to the governor-general for assent until legal actions against similar legislation in Australia were settled.
Australia faces complaints to the World Trade Organisation over its legislation, which saw plain packaging introduced at the start of 2013.
Tobacco companies and countries which produce large quantities of tobacco have complained that the measures amount to stripping intellectual property rights from owners on legal products.
But Morris-Travers, an NZ First MP between 1996 and 1999, said as well as trade agreements, New Zealand had also signed up to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which required it to pursue policies which protected children from harm.
"We contend that it's in the national interest to progress this bill into law without delay," she said, adding that Trade Minister Tim Groser surely would not have signed New Zealand up to agreements which could prevent New Zealand from using policy to protect children.
"Any legal action that took us to the World Trade Organisation or elsewhere could easily be argued against on the basis that we are acting in the national interest and the interests of our children,'' Morris-Travers said.
"While there will be a number of external influences and pressures being brought to this debate ... you are on solid moral ground, I would suggest, to pursue this in the interests of children."
Earlier Trina Snow, executive director of the National Association of Retail Grocers New Zealand argued that the measure would take up added time for small retailers working out which type of product was which, especially those who suffered from dyslexia.
Dr Stephen Palmer of Regional Public Health said there was "overwhelming" evidence that product packaging was an effective marketing tool.
"We believe it actually targets the most vulnerable people, and that's children, and smokers who want to quit."
He pointed to a study published in 1996 in the Journal of the American Medical Association which claimed that more children could recognise Joe Camel, a character from Camel cigarettes advertising, than could recognise Mickey Mouse.
The committee has received more than 17,000 submissions on the bill, with the great majority form-type submissions both for and against the legislation.
Around 60 of the submissions were rejected because they were not in English or Maori, although committee chairman Paul Hutchison said if the submitters wanted to modify them into one of the official languages of Parliament they would be accepted as late submissions.
Only one MP voted against the bill at first reading, Act MP John Banks.
- Fairfax Media