Tobacconist's stand against rules ends in court

UP IN SMOKE: Jack Thomson’s advertising at his  Porirua store yesterday, with the word ‘‘cigarette’’ painted out.
UP IN SMOKE: Jack Thomson’s advertising at his Porirua store yesterday, with the word ‘‘cigarette’’ painted out.

Jack Thomson fought the so-called "Health Nazis" for two years in a bid to remain a loud and proud tobacconist. Now it's landed him in court.

The Wellington man yesterday became the first person convicted of obstructing a smokefree enforcement officer, after hurling verbal abuse and preventing the officer from entering his store.

The name-calling, which included multiple accusations of fascism, was part of Thomson's long-running dispute with health officials over his colourfully decorated Porirua store, as revealed in court documents.

Thomson at one stage became so obstructive that a police escort was required for the health official's final inspection.

In the Porirua District Court yesterday, Thomson pleaded guilty and was convicted and fined $250 for obstructing a smokefree officer. His company, Discount Cigarette Supplies, was fined another $2025 for displaying tobacco advertising.

It is only the second company convicted since controls on tobacco displays were tightened two years ago.

The Ministry of Health claimed that not only did the sign outside the store, "discount cigarette supplies", break the law banning tobacco advertising, but so did many of the posters that covered the walls inside.

Among the offending items were a Tom Scott cartoon of a man holding a cigar and a poster reading "Warning Warning, These cigarettes products are for YOUR smoking pleasure".

Thomson was first approached by Kristen Foley, the head of tobacco control at Regional Public Health, in June 2012, shortly before a law change banning all references to tobacco in store displays.

Foley warned him that many of the signs, including the one outside, would soon be illegal, but Thomson replied he would not be making any changes.

After repeated visits from Foley, Thomson eventually blanked out two letters in the word "cigarette" on the front of his shop with stickers. Each sticker read, "This is a banned word".

Speaking in court yesterday, ministry lawyer Jamie Eng said Thomson had shown contempt for the laws intended to reduce the social harm of smoking.

He said the sign, as well as the memorabilia inside, sent a clear signal that tobacco was available for sale. "This is a tobacco retailer thumbing his nose at the regulatory regime."

However, Thomson's lawyer, Noel Sainsbury, said his client had received legal advice that he was within his right to keep the sign, even though this proved incorrect.

While Thomson responded poorly to the enforcement officer, it reflected his belief that he was being treated in a "draconian and officious" way.

"He was offensive in the way he responded and that was stupid. You are going to lose every time."

Judge Bill Hastings said while some of the signs were clearly illegal, others, such as the cartoon, were not.

"It must be possible to reminisce and criticise the act without falling foul of it."

Thomson declined to comment yesterday but has previously said that after spending years in the tobacco industry, he was a strong believer in smokers' rights.

His walls have now been stripped of posters, and "cigarette" painted over on the sign outside.

The Dominion Post