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Plain branding puts exports at risk

STEVE RUSH
Last updated 08:15 09/11/2012

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OPINION: The Australian market for New Zealand apples could grow to 500,000 cases earning $30 million a year, according to Pipfruit New Zealand.

But it took a challenge to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to force the Australian Government to open its borders to New Zealand apples to make it all happen.

So, on the one hand, the New Zealand Government is happy to use the WTO to improve our trade prospects. But, on the other hand, the same New Zealand Government is prepared to ignore our international trade agreements by preventing the use of branding. How can New Zealand use a WTO agreement to enforce compliance by Australia and, on the other hand, disregard other WTO agreements it has signed up to?

New Zealand is a party to several multilateral and bilateral trade agreements that include protection of intellectual property, including brands. Forcing any product into a plain package denies the owner of the intellectual property, which includes the products' branding, the right to use what legally belongs to them. The New Zealand Government's plain-packaging proposal would prevent tobacco manufacturers from using their branding and, in doing that, breach New Zealand's international trade obligations and compromise our ability to participate in the international trading market.

The Australian Government's decision to introduce plain packaging has already resulted in WTO challenges from the Ukraine, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, while other countries, including Mexico, Indonesia, Russia and Chile, are opposed to the introduction of plain packaging in Australia.

There is no doubt that New Zealand will be next off the block if it goes ahead with plain packaging.

So if New Zealand is going to break the rules, how can we expect other countries to keep them? If New Zealand won't recognise the brand rights of other nations, why should they recognise ours?

Already we have an example. The New Zealand Government views with concern events in Thailand where regulators are planning to set an international precedent by requiring graphic health warnings to be on all domestic and imported beer, wine and liquor bottles.

How would we feel if, in response to a protest from the New Zealand Government, the Thai Government said: "If you don't respect property rights and international trade agreements in your market, why should we respect them in ours?"

British American Tobacco New Zealand's latest campaign raises this proposition and asks - are our wine exports worth protecting? We think there are a lot of the people in New Zealand who would say they are and that the Government should not be promoting a policy that could put any legitimate industry at risk, least of all an export industry.

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WTO rules and principles have been established for all legitimate brand owners and provide protection for products trading on the international stage. It will be an unfortunate day for New Zealand, including for our businesses and foreign investors, if WTO principles are applied selectively.

Steve Rush is general manager of British American Tobacco New Zealand.

- The Dominion Post

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