Editorial: Big Tobacco's smoke screen

The fight against the ravages of tobacco continues. The latest skirmish is focused not on the tobacco itself but on the packaging in which it is sold, with the Cabinet agreeing to introduce a plain-packaging regime alongside that of Australia's.

A round of public consultation will precede the move. Judging by earlier surveys associated with the war on tobacco – on sponsorship bans, smokefree workplaces, tax increases and the like – the few voices against will in the main be tied to what are euphemistically called "smoking advocacy groups". Others would call them front organisations for Big Tobacco.

When surveyed, the average smoker-in-the-street seems as keen on tougher anti-smoking rules as many non-smokers. Often more keen, in fact. This is because most smokers hate smoking and the grip it has on their foreshortened lives, and are keen on any help they can get to kick their addiction.

The latest idea is a ban on branded cigarette and tobacco packs – no colourful designs, logos or trademarks, just a plain pack adorned only with health warnings or messages to quit.

Explaining the proposed move, Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia said plain packaging would ensure "that once they are in the hands and homes of smokers, the packs don't promote anything other than our serious health warnings and quit messages".

If enacted, the move would be the next step in the Government's drive to make New Zealand smokefree by 2025. From July, a ban on the open display of cigarette and tobacco packs in all shops comes into force.Big Tobacco is not happy about any of this. These merchants of death, led by British American Tobacco, are challenging the Australian plain-packaging regime in the courts. A High Court hearing began this week in Canberra, with the industry viewing it as a test case. Around the world, other governments considering adopting the Australian regime are keeping a watch on proceedings.

If you believe the arguments of the tobacco industry, plain packaging will be even worse for society than smoking. They claim it will slash profits (which they see as a bad thing), promote fake products (the carcinogens will still be real though), and infringe their intellectual property.

They paint a picture of a bleak, Stalinist future in which the merry colours of our consumer world are replaced with plain wrappers on everything from alcohol to packets of salt. It's a wonder they didn't suggest cars would be required to come only in grey, with no adornments or badging.

Yes, cars kill, and so can excess alcohol, salt and maybe even soft drink. But let's look at some numbers – 4600 smoking deaths a year in New Zealand, making it the leading cause of preventable death. The combined toll that might possibly be attributed to cars, alcohol, fast food and sugary drinks would not even come close to that.

We have seen these spurious arguments from Big Tobacco before, and anyone who has seen the film, Thank You for Smoking, will know that the aim of these arguments is not to prove or disprove anything but simply to raise doubts.

As the tobacco apologist Nick Naylor says to a roomful of schoolchildren in that film: "If your parents told you that chocolate was dangerous, would you take their word for it?"

The children shake their heads no. "Exactly. So perhaps instead of acting like sheep when it comes to cigarettes, you should find out for yourself."

Fiction maybe, but the facts are no doubt even stranger.

The Southland Times