Free trade deals are preventing New Zealand from becoming the second country to have plain packaging for tobacco products, campaigners say.
Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia announced yesterday that the Government had agreed to introduce plain packets but would wait for legal action over similar moves in Australia to be completed.
Plain packing was introduced in Australia on January 1, making it the first country to do so.
But the Government there was embroiled in a long-running legal battle which has no spilled over to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Daniel Kalderimis, a partner at law firm Chapman Tripp, said any legal action by tobacco companies would likely be taken under one of New Zealand's bilateral trade agreements.
Turia said tobacco companies were very litigious but could not launch legal action until legislation passed Parliament.
That has been deliberately delayed until at least next year to give the Australian case time to be settled.
Auckland University professor, and anti-free trade campaigner, Jane Kelsey said it was clear threats by tobacco companies had done their job.
"Big Tobacco is notorious for using these [trade] agreements to chill government's decisions."
The National Government had never been keen on plain packaging and hoped not to be reliant on the Maori Party's support by the time the final decision was being made, she said.
Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague said free trade deals were hampering the good health initiative.
"Plain packaging is a great public health initiative as it stops tobacco companies getting around the law to stop them advertising.
"Their product kills - and the Government should do all it can to stop them ensnaring New Zealanders into this costly and deadly habit."
The decision to wait for the Australian decision was disappointing, he said.
Philip Morris New Zealand spokesman Christopher Bishop said the announcement showed the Government recognised the significant international trade issues at stake.
"There is no credible evidence that plain packaging will lower smoking rates, but strong evidence it breaches international trade rules and exposes New Zealand to WTO action."
British American Tobacco NZ spokesman Steve Rush said the company would keep fighting plain packaging.
"While we can't rule out legal action at this stage, we can say that we will fully participate in the legislative process,"he said.
Imperial Tobacco said it was disappointed, because there was no evidence the Government's strategy would work.
"The Government has already introduced other initiatives, including increased excise taxes and a ban on retail displays, none of which have been thoroughly evaluated yet," said spokesman Brendan Walker.
Labour has promised to back any moves towards plain packaging.
- The Dominion Post
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