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Heart in hands of MPs before select committee

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

by Maggie Tait of NZPA

Wellington, June 30 NZPA - A former smoker bought his diseased heart to Parliament for MPs to look at today, just minutes before tobacco company Philip Morris' representatives fronted to defend their company.

Mohi Waihi, a quietly spoken Maori man, told the Maori Affairs select committee, which is holding an inquiry into the tobacco industry, of his five heart attacks caused by smoking-related disease.

Mr Waihi started smoking when he was 19 and only stopped when he had a heart transplant in 2005. He was immensely grateful to the 40-year-old female donor, but said most people were not as lucky as him and died. Around 22 percent of Maori deaths were attributable to smoking.

MPs on the committee looked at the heart before media were given a chance to view it.

"I am just so glad I am here," he said.

Committee chairman Hone Harawira held up the plastic-wrapped preserved yellow-white heart when Martin Inkster, general manager of Philip Morris International responsible for New Zealand, and Nerida White, its regulatory strategy and communications director, took their seats.

"This is his heart, his last heart", Mr Harawira said, holding it up.

Answering his questions, the reps said they accepted smoking caused disease and death.

Why then, did they still sell tobacco, he asked.

"There is a consumer demand for it. The product is currently regulated and it can be legally sold and bought," Ms White answered.

Mr Harawira said a pharmaceutical company that appeared before the hearing said nicotine was more addictive than heroin.

"Do you think a highly addictive product which kills half of its users, which kills them when used as recommended by the manufacturer, should be available for sale to the public?"

Because it was legal, was the answer again.

Mr Harawira asked if they or the company accepted responsibility for the 5000 deaths a year the product caused in New Zealand.

"Obviously any loss, any illness is upsetting, and I like most people, well I lost two grandparents to smoking related illness," Mr Inkster said.

He said he didn't smoke -- "because it's harmful and I don't like it."

Earlier in the hearing the Philip Morris representatives said there was no debate that smoking was harmful and the company complied with regulations and laws which prevented advertising and enforced smokefree workplaces and pubs.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei disputed their claim that only existing users were targeted and said if that was the case, there should be no problem with plain packaging and removal of displays in shops.

Mr Inkster said packaging helped consumers differentiate between brands and removing displays would impose costs on retailers and make no difference to demand.

Other ideas raised were licensing retailers and removing flavourings from cigarettes.

Mr Inkster said whatever the ingredients cigarettes were still addictive and harmful and if all additives were required to be removed, the public would go to illicit providers.

He disputed claims that the company modified the amount of naturally occurring nicotine in their products.

Health groups and advisers also appeared before the committee and two teenagers, Leroy Brown from Christchurch and Mahinarangi from Palmerston North, were invited to sit up beside Mr Harawira during the hearing. Mr Brown told MPs how he was raised by his grandparents who both smoked even though there wasn't enough money for food. They had now given up.

Prime Minister John Key said the Government would consider point of sale restrictions but thought price was the best control.

"The advice that we've had so far is the most significant way to reduce smoking is to increase price and that was why we increased the excise taxes."

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