Cigarette plain packaging closer Wednesday, 12 February 2014

New Zealand has the "sovereign right" to protect its citizens and will not be told what to do by tobacco companies, Tariana Turia says, as plain packaging of cigarettes passed its first hurdle.

Last night Turia, Associate Minister of Health, introduced the Smokefree Environments (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Amendment Bill into Parliament, and it passed its first vote by 118 votes to one.

It has now been referred to the Health Select Committee for public consultation. National, Labour, the Greens are all supporting it, while New Zealand First was expected to support it at least through to select committee.

Eventually the legislation would see all branding removed from all tobacco products, aside from the name of the variation in small plain type, with large warnings about the risks posed by smoking.

Turia said that despite legal challenges to similar measures across the Tasman, she was confident it met New Zealand's international obligations.

"While the tobacco industry may have laid down a threat that if this legislation is passed [it will be challenged] my message to them is that our country has a sovereign right and a legal right to protect its citizens," she told Parliament.

"I am firmly of the opinion that it is not for any tobacco company to be telling us what we should be doing in our own land," she said, adding that the harm done by smoking meant politicians were obliged to act.

"Five thousand New Zealanders die from smoking a year and that death toll places a responsibility on every politician to pass legislation in our land that will help save lives and increase wellbeing."

The final legislation will await the outcome of World Trade Organisation (WTO) challenges to plain packaging in Australia, which introduced the measures at the start of 2013, before branding is stripped in New Zealand.

However tobacco companies still say the Government should wait until those challenges are resolved before starting the legislative process.

British American Tobacco, which controls more than two-thirds of the national tobacco market, said the risk to New Zealand's trading relationships was "worryingly real" with five countries challenging the Australian Government over its plain packaging legislation at the WTO.

"We believe it would be wise for the Government to wait for WTO challenges to be resolved before considering the introduction of plain packaging here," BAT spokeswoman Susan Jones said.

"Plain packaging constitutes a severe restriction on the use of our intellectual property, including trademarks. This is a huge concern to us, as it would be to any business, because the effect is to render our trademarks unusable."

ACT party leader John Banks opposes the bill.

Ahead of the vote he said he opposed smoking and supported measures to stop young people taking it up, but he did not believe plain packaging would work, likening it to "rain dancing".

"I don't believe the State should seize property rights from legitimate companies selling legitimate products," he said.

"There's no international evidence I'm aware of that tells us that plain packaging helps young people not to start smoking.

"If we want to get serious about smoking and dealing with the habit of smoking and the consequences, then increase the price and I suggest the Government should double it tonight," he said, adding that plain packaging was "not going to work. It's a sop".