Editorial: It'll take a long time to run out of puff

Last updated 13:00 17/08/2012

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OPINION: The problem with big tobacco is that it combines plenty of puff with a legendary lack of conscience.

In spite of clear, incontrovertible and ultimately horrifying evidence of the damage its product does to health, the tobacco industry keeps on keeping on. Like its brother-in-arms, the alcohol trade, it constantly attempts to divert attention from the harm inherent in consumption. Alcohol purveyors can at least say that their products are only really harmful if consumed to excess - although the question of how much is too much isn't easily answered. Pregnant women aren't supposed to drink any at all, so how can it be harmless? The point is that adults are supposed to be adult enough to make an informed choice: smoking will probably kill me but it makes me feel good and look cool, and there's no law against it.

Increasingly, though, there is. You can no longer smoke in a great many places where once it was almost encouraged. You don't have to go far back in time to encounter smouldering ashtrays on airplanes, trains and buses. Until just a few years ago you could light up in the pub or at a restaurant without fear of anything more than a disapproving look. All that has changed, and along with it social attitudes. Only a boor would light up in a stranger's home and even the sight of pathetic clutches of smokers huddled conspiratorially outside workplaces is becoming more of a rarity. Powered by the clear proof that smoking is a tawdry killer, amateur and professional thought police can maintain their efforts to stamp it out, gradually wearing down the resistance of the hard core who keep lighting up.

The latest victory in the anti-smoking campaign is the prohibition on displaying cigarettes and tobacco for sale. In an echo of the days when condoms were considered too racy for public display, smokers now have to approach the counter and ask. This follows the compulsory inclusion of anti-smoking slogans and revolting pictures of cancerous lesions on packets, a move that did not turn out to be a bridge too far for many of the nicotine-addicted, though it disgusts non-smokers who unwittingly stumble upon a stray packet. Now the campaign has been stepped up. Australia is moving towards an insistence on plain packaging of tobacco products and some New Zealand politicians, notably Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, are keen on following suit.

Given big tobacco's record, its unsurprising that it is fighting back. The industry has been to court in Australia to allege that plain packaging is unconstitutional. There are international actions going ahead through the World Trade Organisation and New Zealand has been warned it will face a similar onslaught if it heads down the plain packaging road. That's something to think hard about, because the taxpayer will foot the bill for what could be a drawn-out and extremely costly defence. Also worth thinking about is this: if tobacco continues to be a legal product, how far can the sanctions intended to reduce its sales be fairly taken? Maori figure too prominently in smoking-related deaths and illnesses and Mrs Turia's stance is understandable. But shouldn't she be focusing more on education than interference? Aren't we all regulated enough?

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- The Nelson Mail

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