Editorial: Debate must not be extinguished

MICHAEL CUMMINGS - EDITOR
Last updated 12:00 25/10/2012

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OPINION: A string of complaints and public criticism levelled against British and American Tobacco New Zealand for its advertising campaign warning against the pitfalls of plain packaging of cigarettes is seriously misguided.

The tobacco company is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on its "Agree/Disagree" campaign in an effort to sway public opinion against a Government proposal to strip cigarette packaging of any branding. BATNZ argues that, while it agrees tobacco is harmful, the branding is intellectual property and the Government should not be able to legislate it away.

The company's effort to persuade the public to support its point of view is an expensive exercise in futility, but BATNZ has every right to state its case.

The arguments it makes are clearly disingenuous - BATNZ is fighting to protect sales and profits, not the property right of other companies should this precedent be set - but the New Zealand public is smart enough to recognise that. The tobacco company is fooling no-one.

And yet a stream of complaints has been laid with the Advertising Standards Authority that have quite rightly been dismissed, and anti-tobacco campaigners have been crying foul.

Tobacco companies cannot advertise their products, cabinet displays have been hidden away, and smoking has been been banned in pubs and clubs. People have differing views on whether such restrictions are warranted, and there's a legitimate public discussion to be had about the best way to mitigate the harm that tobacco causes.

What must never be curtailed, though, is the freedom to publicly express views, however unpopular they might be. The need to protect people's health must never be used to justify harming the health of our open, democratic society.

Suggestions that BATNZ is using its "Agree/Disagree" campaign as a regulatory loophole to advertise tobacco products are as spurious as the company's complaints about the infringement of intellectual property rights.

While the overwhelming majority of the public supports plain packaging, no government proposal should be a fait accompli.

BATNZ will be affected by the regulations, and it has every right to engage in the public debate.

If that discussion is stifled, then the eventual outcome will lack legitimacy. And if the process that determines the outcome of the plain-packaging proposal is not open and fair to all sides, no side can claim victory.

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- Manawatu Standard

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