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The Tobacco Industry in New Zealand: A Case Study of the Behaviour of Multinational Companies


This report takes a preliminary look at the behaviour of the tobacco industry in New Zealand. It is based on a series of literature searches, interviews with key informants, and on the examination of internal tobacco industry documents, many of which have been released by court orders in the United States. The report considers the tobacco industry activities in the context of a suggested framework for a responsible industry. The framework assumes that where the available evidence indicates that a consumer product poses a significant health hazard, then there are a number of appropriate responses that a business should undertake. These include warning the public, ceasing to promote the product and modifying the product to reduce harm.

We found internal tobacco industry documents that appeared to show that advisers to the industry in New Zealand believed that smoking caused cancer, at a period when the industry was denying this link in statements to Parliament. Other documents showed that the industry took some credit for the decision in 1994 to end the Public Health Commission. The industry believed that they had slowed the adoption of new health warnings about tobacco during the 1990s. The documents show that the industry was assisted in their opposition to tobacco control activity by major New Zealand law firms, and by lawyers that included Sir Geoffrey Palmer, an ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The behaviour of the tobacco industry in particular areas is summarised below. The industry and the direct health effects of smoking: The available evidence suggests that the tobacco industry in New Zealand has been irresponsible in its prolonged delay in admitting the health risks posed by its products. Instead, it has attempted to falsely reassure the public and has been obstructive regarding the placement of health warnings on its products. When the industry has started to admit to the health risks from smoking, it has done so in a vague and disingenuous way. It has failed to substantively and appropriately communicate the health risk of its products to its customers and the public.

The industry and the addictiveness of nicotine: The tobacco industry in New Zealand has been irresponsible in not informing its customers that its products are addictive. It has tried to provide reassurance to the public by defining smoking as merely a “habit”. Furthermore, the industry has been obstructive about the placement of health warnings with the word “addiction” on its products. Even though internal industry documents have showed that British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have known for several decades that nicotine is addictive, the companies have still not actively and explicitly acknowledged the severity of the dependence created.

The industry and second-hand smoke: The tobacco industry in New Zealand has consistently failed to warn the New Zealand public or the consumers of its products about the health risks from second-hand smoke. Furthermore, it has attempted to reassure the public and smokers that these risks are not real. These industry activities have been undertaken while the parent companies of some of the New Zealand companies knew of the risks posed by second-hand smoke (as shown by their internal documents). The irresponsible actions of the industry in New Zealand are similar to the approach taken by the industry elsewhere.

Industry misuse of product design and opposition to harm reduction: The tobacco industry in New Zealand appears to have misused the design of tobacco products, particularly its use of additives. Many of the design changes may have been for marketing purposes rather than for harm reduction. The industry has also opposed the removal of fire accelerants from cigarettes. The apparent focus on marketing issues and lack of concern about significantly reducing harm to consumers is consistent with the policies of the industry’s parent companies and of other overseas tobacco companies.

Industry opposition to tobacco control initiatives: The available evidence suggests that the tobacco industry in New Zealand has opposed all substantive measures to help reduce tobacco consumption, to prevent the uptake of smoking by youth, and to protect the population from second-hand smoke. In particular, they have opposed restrictions on tobacco promotion (advertising and sponsorship) and smokefree environment regulations. They have also opposed the organisations involved in tobacco control and the compensation of those harmed by tobacco use. This irresponsible pattern of behaviour is highly consistent with that of the parent companies overseas and of other international tobacco companies.

A responsible industry? It appears that the tobacco industry in New Zealand has behaved in a highly irresponsible manner over the last four decades. The industry’s activities would appear to conflict with the societal values embodied in consumer protection legislation such as New Zealand’s Fair Trading Act. Controlling the industry: We argue that given the extensive harm to New Zealanders from tobacco use, and the chronically irresponsible behaviour of the tobacco industry, there is a need for the New Zealand Government to more intensely regulate this particular industry. We suggest that the desired end point for Government policy is a smoking prevalence and exposure to second-hand smoke as near as possible to zero, while still permitting smoking to be legal. A wide range of tobacco control interventions should be used to achieve these end points.

We consider that essential elements of a more effective tobacco control programme would include regular tobacco taxation increases and a much tighter regulatory environment. In particular, there is a need to severely constrain the way tobacco is sold and to control the composition of cigarettes. Publicising irresponsible tobacco industry activities and facilitating legal action against the industry appear to be valuable aspects that could be introduced to New Zealand Government tobacco control activities.

An effective long-term programme for a virtually smokefree New Zealand would need to be carefully planned. It may need to be conducted by a focused, independent agency with secure funding. Without such measures the irresponsible behaviour of the tobacco industry in New Zealand will continue to impose a major burden on the health and welfare of its customers and on the public of New Zealand.

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