New Zealand’s battle for a smoke-free country could be, in the face of it all, just a lot of hot air.The country last week became only the second country in the world, after Australia, to announce the approval of plain packs for cigarettes to be sold in any retail outlet.
While the New Zealand government initiative to secure better health of its people is to be lauded, the hard hitting policy could be a long way away considering Australia’s move last December to introduce plain packaging is facing legal challenges.
Maori Party co-leader and Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia has said standardised packs with large health warnings would be introduced once Australia had settled the legal challenges it faced for its own regime, which is expected to be resolved in 15 to 18 months, and plain packs to be in New Zealand stores next year.
But legal experts said a World Trade Organisation dispute was likely to take at least two years - a timeframe which could delay a law change to the next parliamentary term.
Australia is facing dual challenges from tobacco companies and tobacco-producing countries after introducing olive-green, standardised packs in December.
Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand’s proposal hinged on Australia’s success.
If PC-correctness is anything to go by in current world trends, a ruling might well be in the tobacco giants’ favour.
According Ms Turia, plain packaging will “remove the last remaining vestige of glamour from these deadly products”. In reality, any glamour associated with smoking vanished years ago.
A wave of regulations governing where cigarettes can be smoked, how they can be promoted and displayed, and dictating the placement of graphic health warnings on packets has left no doubt about the practice’s standing. The success of many of these steps in reducing the rate of smoking is, however, very much open to question. Even more so is the impact of plain packaging.
Claims that there will be a drop in smoking are necessarily based on guesswork, not evidence. Several other countries, including France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, have considered the idea and decided not to go with it. Much of their thinking was determined not only by doubts about the effectiveness of plain packaging but by what would have to be sacrificed to accommodate it. The most pertinent of these relates to intellectual property rights.
Branding is one of the most powerful weapons in the commercial arsenal. It is certainly property and any government that prevents its use is guilty of confiscating it. The International Chamber of Commerce, commenting on Australia’s introduction of plain packaging last year, suggested that removing one industry’s ability to use its intellectual property rights opened the door to extending this violation to other industries and other brand owners. It is difficult to disagree.
This precedent is being levelled at what remains a lawful industry, although it is clouded by the stigma attached to smoking. Yet any doubt on the Government’s part seems to lie not so much with intellectual property but with the country’s trading obligations.
New Zealand has been wise to await the outcome of legal cases in Australia before introducing plain packaging here.
A wealth of research has shown that hitting the smokers in the pocket is what would get desired results. Increased prices are a particular deterrent to youngsters, who represent the most worrying group among those who continue to smoke.
Price is a weapon that works. It is there that the Government’s efforts should be concentrated, not on a step that will make little difference and involves the theft of property rights.
Far-sightedness now on the part of Government could ensure its drive snuff out the number of smokers in New Zealand will not go up in smoke.