Plain packaging to wait until legal storm passes

The Government's cautious drive to have plain packaging on cigarette packets has been welcomed by the MP for Palmerston North even though he feels it is not "a huge amount of progress".

The Government will wait to introduce legislation until after legal challenges mounted against a similar law in Australia are completed.

Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway, who is Labour's associate health spokesman, said he could understand the Government's caution.

"There's no need to unnecessarily expose ourselves to legal costs, so I can understand where the Government is coming from."

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia announced yesterday that the Government had decided to adopt plain packaging.

Policy work on implementation would begin straight away and legislation would be introduced later this year, but plain packets were not expected to be on shelves until next year at the earliest, she said.

Plain packaging came into effect in Australia on January 1 after a lengthy court battle which has spilled over into an international trade dispute. Mr Lees-Galloway said he hoped the law would be in place before Mrs Turia, who is retiring from politics at next year's election, left Parliament.

An advocate for more controls on the tobacco industry, Mr Lees-Galloway paid tribute to Mrs Turia's efforts in getting Government support for plain packaging.

"I don't think the Government would have been so progressive without Tariana Turia's input.

"It's the last form of advertising [cigarette companies] have; any opportunity we have to reduce the positive messages around smoking is something we should take up," Mr Lees-Galloway said.

Daniel Kalderimis, a partner at law firm Chapman Tripp, said a decision to adopt plain packaging would open up a range of legal challenges - which could attack the consultation process adopted by the Ministry of Health, include claims that the Government had breached its World Trade Organisation obligations, or tobacco companies suing over allegations of breaches of bilateral investment treaties.

Mrs Turia said tobacco companies were "very litigious" and had been open about their plans to launch a legal challenge here.

But legal action could not be launched until the legislation was passed next year, she said.

"In making this decision the Government acknowledges that it will need to manage some legal risk."

However, adopting plain packaging was the right decision and it was a "good day for New Zealand".

"Currently the packaging does everything it can to attract consumers and increase the perceived appeal and acceptability of smoking."

Philip Morris New Zealand spokesman Christopher Bishop said the announcement showed that 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.

Manawatu Standard