Editorial: Plain and not-so-simple

When Big Tobacco people start a sentence with "There is no credible evidence . . ." it raises more than one question about credibility.

These were the guys who, by the most charitable estimates, were just a decade or two behind everybody else in twigging that their product, when used as intended, was harmful.

Either they were a tad naive on this point, and badly advised by all those scientists they paid all that money to, or the industry was deceitful, grasping and flat-out evil.

Even if it's the latter - and yes, let's go with that one - this is not to say that every time the industry wheezes out a statement it is wrong.

Right now, Philip Morris New Zealand is saying that the Government's plans to introduce plain packaging are ill-conceived because there's no credible evidence plain packaging will lower smoking rates. British American Tobacco NZ tends to agree.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia would beg to differ. The evidence from experimental studies, marketing experts and the industry's own documents is overwhelming, she says.

It depends how easily whelmed you are.

Tobacco control experts from around the world estimate that two years after the introduction of generic packaging, the number of adult smokers would be reduced by one percentage point, according to a Cambridge University study reported in the British Medical Journal.

Unimpressive as a percentage; rather moreso if you think in terms of the pile of bodies . The World Health Organisation says tobacco kills nearly 6 million people a year. In New Zealand the figure is put at 5000 a year.

No packaging change will be introduced in New Zealand until we, and the rest of the watching world, find out how the only country to have required plain packaging, Australia, fares once the firestorm of legal recrimination from the tobacco companies over trade agreements and international property rights plays out.

There is, let's face it, an element in governmental tactics of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the tobacco companies.

That's not, in itself, a disagreeable thought. But the legal challenges mounted by these ugly companies are not, in the strict legal sense, either frivolous or vexatious. They do need to be tested for their legitimacy. Our country, as much as any, cannot afford to see trade commitments treated as inconsequential matters.

So the issues are legality and effectiveness. We'll have to see about the first, but as far as the second goes we should take what we can get. The tobacco companies' line is that not only is plain packaging ineffectual, but other initiatives including increased excise taxes and banning retail displays just haven't been thoroughly evaluated yet.

We cannot take our lead on what constitutes thorough evaluation from these clowns, as if we all want the same thing and they, as much as anyone else, maintain a state of abiding disappointment that so many people keep buying their poisonous product.

They are not collaborators in the process. They are, plain and simple, the enemy. An enemy that will sometimes brandish a convenient truth, but has a decades-old track record of lying good and hard, if it comes to that.

The Southland Times