Cigarette factory fires up

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
BUSINESS REPORTER
Last updated 14:50 06/08/2012
Imperial Tobacco
Maarten Holl
Lower Hutt mayor Ray Wallace, right, starts a new cigarette machine, watched by factory manager Mike McInnarney, at the official opening of an extension to the Imperial Tobacco plant at Petone.
Imperial Tobacco
Maarten Holl
A stack of cigarettes at Imperial Tobacco's Petone plant.

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Imperial Tobacco says a ''future proofed'' factory in Petone will operate in the area for ''as long as it can'' with smoking destined to continue even if plain packaging legislation is passed.

This morning Lower Hutt mayor Ray Wallace switched on a German-made Protos 80IR cigarette making machine - capable of churning out 8000 cigarettes a minute - marking the official opening of Imperial's $45 million factory upgrade.

Cigarettes have been produced on the Richmond Street site continuously since 1929 and the company's head of commercial, Brendan Walker said the investment, which may otherwise have gone to Asia, demonstrated Imperial's commitment to the city, where it wanted to continue operating for years.

Following the closure of an Australian factory, Imperial had chosen to upgrade Petone over other sites around Asia.

The 18 month upgrade has received criticism from anti-smoking groups, with associate health minister Tariana Turia saying the investment was ''immoral''.

Mrs Turia is driving legislation which could force cigarettes and rolling tobacco to be sold in packaging with virtually no branding, as part of an attempt to eradicate the habit.

Mr Walker said the legislation was still in a consultation phase and it was unclear what would come out of it, but it would not be the end of smoking.

''We're a legal business that operates by providing adult smokers a choice. Adult smokers will still want that choice, Plain packaging will not stop adult smokers wanting to smoke.''

Imperial's market manager Paul Warham said while the headline of the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 document suggested eradicating smoking in 13 years, the actual document had an ''aspirational goal'' of reducing smoking to around 5 per cent of adults ''if it's totally successful'' over the period.

''It's quite okay that it [the factory] can remain viable for us, moving forward, because we can certainly grow our market share of whatever the existing market is here''.

The upgrade saw the use of 150 contractors and increased the number of staff working at the factory by 50 to about 200.

This year the factory is expected to produce 3.9 billion cigarettes and 800 tonnes of rolling tobacco, with brands including Horizon and JPS, most of which will be shipped across the Tasman.

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Mr Wallace said since opening more than 80 years ago, the factory had provided ''thousands'' of jobs and was now one of the Lower Hutt's leading employers and ratepayers.

''Unlike other industry's that have gone by the wayside, this one hasn't. The fact that they have stayed here in Petone rather than go to Asia is a positive thing,'' Wallace said.

''This level of expansion and investment is very rare in these economic times and I think we have to grab every opportunity.''

Wallace, who has never tried smoking, said he respected Mrs Turia's views, but saw smoking as a personal choice and he would support legitimate businesses who invested in the city.

''I'm here today as mayor to support one of our largest ratepayers, one of our biggest employers in this city, because that's what the mayor needs to do along with the council, we need to be seen to be supporting the rate payers and our business that put substantial  investment in this city.

''I'm not making a moral judgement. I don't smoke, never have, never will, but this factory provides up to 200 jobs locally. That means it's putting bread and butter on people's tables, and again, smoking comes down to a personal choice.''

Dr Jan Pearson, spokeswoman for the Cancer Society, has said the investment was ''unethical given that smoking kills''.

''Everyone knows that, and I think it's time that we realised that we need to step back from any sort of investment and support for the tobacco industry.''

Related stories:

- Tobacco battle lights up

- Tobacco deal creates 50 jobs in Petone

- Australians export jobs to New Zealand

- Cancer society blasts tobacco export

Contact Hamish Rutherford
Business reporter
Email: hamish.rutherford@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @oneforthedr

- © Fairfax NZ News

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