Lower Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace is defending "good employer" Imperial Tobacco, as he prepares to officially open its $45 million factory upgrade.
The Petone factory has operated since the 1920s, and its six new production lines can now roll 8000 cigarettes a minute.
The company was swamped with applications in March when it announced 50 jobs would be created, and exports to Australia would quadruple, after an upgrade that Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia called "immoral".
Cancer Society spokesman Jan Pearson chimed in, calling the upgrade "Kiwi imports Australians don't want".
Wallace doesn't smoke but says the habit is a personal choice.
"I don't think the critics are looking at the bigger picture. They're saying it's immoral. Are they saying that about people who sell alcohol? We have plenty of issues with alcohol too. No one forces anyone to smoke, and if people have a problem with smoking, or kicking the habit, that's for them to deal with."
Imperial Tobacco was a good employer, he said, and had taken measures such as blackout screens to reduce light pollution to neighbours, because the factory would operate longer hours.
"Many of the workers have been there decades. Some are the second generations of families to work there. It's a good operation and one conscious of its obligations."
Imperial hosts guests at the factory tomorrow, including Wallace, a day ahead of an open day for MPs and officials. Despite inviting dozens of MPs, a spokeswoman confirmed that almost all had said they were "too busy" to attend.
TOBACCO BATTLE LIGHTS UP AS COMPANIES ENTER THE FRAY
Anti-tobacco groups call it a "last-ditch attempt" to survive, but the My Opinion Counts website, led by Philip Morris, is a sign big business is fighting back.
Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague has labelled the website, set up last month as cigarettes were forced behind closed cabinet doors in shops, "disturbing" and "immoral".
On the same day that law came in, the Government released details of its plain packaging plan, which Health Ministry officials say will reduce premature death and contribute to the goal of a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025. They also like aligning with Australia, where plain packs are being rolled out from October.
But website comments aimed at the Government, released to the Sunday Star-Times on the condition of anonymity, show the companies won't go quietly.
"I am annoyed my rights seem to be taken away from me," one smoker says. "I'm old enough to make my own mind up on whether I smoke, drink etc. I don't need the Government or anyone else telling me what I can and can't do,” another says.
Big tobacco is clearly unhappy. For years the companies worked with regulators, and where has it got them?
"Tobacco products can't be used in virtually any public place, can't be advertised, are sold in packs dominated by graphic health warnings, are subject to higher taxes than any other consumer good, and are the subject of significant public health campaigns," Philip Morris general manager Brett Taylor said in a letter to Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia.
He describes plain packaging as "an attack on consumer choice and competition", and says it will cost small businesses thousands of dollars in "lost time" because of "increased time on stock management, sales transaction times, and product selection errors".
"Plain packaging . . . constitutes an expropriation of intellectual property in violation of international treaties," Taylor says.
Meanwhile in Australia, three companies are suing the Government over plain packaging, an action that's expected to fail, but a dispute through the World Trade Organisation will drag on longer, and is thought to have a better chance of success.
The message appears to have reached Wellington, where a recent cabinet paper advised: "We can expect to defend challenges from tobacco producing countries in WTO processes. We also risk litigation by companies under trade and investment agreements."
Officials estimate a $6m legal bill to fight each suit, and a further $2m to defend WTO challenges, costs that may well have put the Government off.
Prime Minister John Key said he "wouldn't die in a ditch" for plain packs, and Labour's David Shearer has warned the Government to "look before we jump".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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