The Government's promise to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products has been met with applause by a Nelson health official, but dairy owners doubt that it will change smokers' habits.
Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia announced yesterday that the Government had decided to adopt plain packaging, but only if it could avoid lengthy legal battles.
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 shop shelves until next year at the earliest, she said. The Government would wait until legal challenges mounted against the Australian Government were completed, so it knew what to expect.
Nelson Bays Primary Health Organisation chief executive Andrew Swanson-Dobbs said the announcement was "fantastic" news.
"Bring it on - do it tomorrow. Any strategy that can decrease the access or inclination to smoke is brilliant."
A law introduced last year banned retailers such as dairies, petrol stations and supermarkets from displaying cigarettes and tobacco products in public view. The products must be hidden in plain cupboards behind the counter, prices can no longer be openly displayed, and businesses cannot trade with names that advertise tobacco.
Victory On The Spot store manager Veer Savniya said the restrictions had not changed smokers' buying habits.
"People know they're cigarettes, and they're going to buy them. It's the same thing with plain packaging. It's going to be more hassle for our daily people," he said.
Richmond Night 'n Day Foodstore co-owner David Smolenski said cigarette sales had not changed "one little bit" since the display restrictions came in.
He said he did not think plain packaging would affect customers' habits either, but they could prevent children from taking up smoking.
"I think that's the whole idea - to have long-term effects for the future. It will be interesting to see how this goes."
Mr Smolenski said cigarettes were dairies' biggest sellers, and "it can't just stop overnight. People are addicted to it. It's as simple as that".
Plain packaging came into effect in Australia on January 1, after a court battle which has spilled over into an international trade dispute.
Daniel Kalderimis, a partner at law firm Chapman Tripp, said adopting plain packaging would open up a range of legal challenges. These could attack the consultation process adopted by the Ministry of Health, allege that the Government had breached its World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations, or involve tobacco companies suing over alleged breaches of bilateral investment treaties.
The bilateral treaty route would be the most worrying for the Government, because it allowed tobacco companies to seek damages.
It was most likely that tobacco companies would use New Zealand's bilateral trade agreement with Hong Kong to launch a challenge, because while it had a public health provision, "it wasn't drafted with the same care and protection" as more recent agreements, he said.
Mrs Turia said tobacco companies were "very litigious" and had been open about their plans to launch a legal challenge here. But this could not happen until the legislation was passed next year. "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", she said.
"Currently, the packaging does everything it can to attract consumers and increase the perceived appeal and acceptability of smoking."
Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand had always followed WTO recommendations.
"Ultimately, our goal is to bring in plain packaging, but we'll just see what the WTO has to say [in the Australian case]."
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."
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