OPINION: Since the 1950s, when the evidence on the lethal effects of tobacco became apparent, the tobacco industry has killed at least 200,000 New Zealanders.
This death toll is a terrible indictment of the industry; why do we still tolerate it? Worse, however, is the fact that many more New Zealanders will be killed by this industry before we are finally rid of it and its deadly effects.
Tobacco is a uniquely harmful product. About half of regular smokers die painful - and often slow - deaths from tobacco, losing at least about 10 years of healthy life. The costs to New Zealand extend beyond this toll of death and disability, such as an enormous burden on our struggling health services.
British American Tobacco NZ overlooks these facts in its campaign to resist serious efforts to stop children and adolescents from starting to smoke - and efforts to help smokers to quit. Their advertising campaign against plain packaging, and the opinion piece by BATNZ general manager Steve Rush puts the company's obligation to its shareholders above the protection of the health of all New Zealanders. Our Health Minister, Tony Ryall, has called this advertising a complete waste of money.
Rush worries that plain packaging of cigarettes will put his "legitimate industry" at risk, and tries to place cigarettes in the same basket as other products, like apples and wine. Rush's analogy with New Zealand's successful challenge to force Australia to accept apple exports is absurd. Apples are not cigarettes. There is no overwhelming public health justification for restricting their export to Australia. And there is no discrimination; plain packaging would apply to all tobacco products wherever they are produced.
Plain packaging of cigarettes is one important step toward reaching the Government's goal of an essentially smoke-free country by 2025. Good progress is being made, largely due to the regular tax increases that began four years ago. But more needs to be done. Hence the importance of plain packaging, as well as further substantial tax increases.
In suggesting that plain packaging of cigarettes will breach our international trade obligations and put exports at risk, Rush is trying to bully the Government. If we had taken the industry's views on tobacco control seriously, we would never have made the progress we have seen in recent years.
He is trying to deflect attention from the real issues: tobacco companies are still addicting children and young people, and killing thousands of New Zealanders.
Australia was the first country to legislate for plain packaging of cigarettes.
The tobacco companies claimed it would be in breach of Australia's constitution. The case was thrown out by the High Court with costs awarded to the government - underlining the emptiness of the threats made.
At the World Trade Organisation, New Zealand supports Australia's position that plain packaging is in accordance with trade obligations.
By introducing plain packaging of cigarettes, the Government will be demonstrating that it is prepared to protect the health of all New Zealanders, rather than a tobacco industry that has already taken too many lives.
Surely a worthy trade-off and one with which we know most New Zealanders agree.
Robert Beaglehole is Emeritus Professor, Auckland University, and has a background in public health.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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