NZ eyes plain packaging laws

ATTORNEY-General Nicola Roxon is confident Australia's tobacco plain packaging laws will "spread to other countries" after the New Zealand Government agreed in-principle to introduce similar legislation.

A group of tobacco companies this week challenged the Australian legislation in the High Court, arguing, among other things, that the Federal Government was, in effect, stripping businesses of intellectual property.

The court reserved its decision, meaning an outcome may not be know for months.

The three-day hearing concluded on Thursday, the same day the New Zealand Government announced its plans.

Ms Roxon said the decision was significant given Australia's close economic and trade links with New Zealand.

She said the United Kingdom was also considering tobacco plain packaging laws with plans in place for public consultation.

"We know the eyes of the world were on us while we strongly defended our position in the High Court," Ms Roxon said.

"Let there be no mistake, big tobacco is fighting against us because they know it will work and they know that it will spread to other countries."

Under Australia's law, which will come into effect in December if the High Court challenge is unsuccessful, all cigarette packets will be sold in dull, green packets dominated by large health warnings and with standardised fonts for the names of the products.

Unbranded packets have been shown in New Zealand research with young people to lack the cool factor associated with cigarette branding for decades.

New Zealand's Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia said on Thursday Cabinet had agreed in-principle to introduce a plain packaging regime in alignment with Australia, subject to the outcome of a New Zealand public consultation process to be carried out later this year.

"The public consultation process is a transparent way of reviewing the evidence and testing the case for plain packaging, and giving the public, the health sector and business interests a chance to have their say," she said.

Final decisions would be made after the consultation results had been taken into account.

"I'm confident that we can bring in a plain packaging regime that will meet all our international commitments, including a major global treaty on tobacco control as well as a range of multilateral, regional and bilateral trade and investment agreements," she said.

Professor Jane Kelsey, an Auckland University expert on international trade and investment law, said Australia was facing several challenges on its precedent-setting plain-packaging law, which showed that tobacco companies would use every legal manoeuvre they could find.

"We can expect that similar pressure will be brought to bear on the New Zealand Government.

"But the New Zealand Government also has obligations under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to pursue these kinds of policies. It has made a commitment ... to pursue a goal of Aotearoa-New Zealand being effectively smoke-free by 2025.

"You can't achieve that goal without radical tobacco control policies."

She said one of the tobacco company actions against Australia was under a bilateral investment agreement with Hong Kong, claiming a loss of intellectual property rights though the change to plain packaging.

New Zealand's agreement with Hong Kong contained strong public health exception clauses, but its agreement with Singapore did not.

"It contains other kinds of exceptions."

Professor Kelsey said New Zealand would become much more vulnerable under Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement investment provisions, "because that would give United States companies the direct right to challenge us".

Tobacco company Philip Morris New Zealand said a plain packaging law would violate numerous international laws and trade treaties.

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