Tobacco giant Philip Morris has hit a major legal hurdle in its attempt to introduce a new smoke-free tobacco product to the Australasian market.
The New Zealand government has laid charges against the company for allegedly importing and selling tobacco cigarettes that are heated in an electronic device, but not burnt.
The charges follow a rival company reporting Philip Morris for allegedly selling the product online to New Zealand customers after it was banned.
Philip Morris has been planning for some months to introduce the product to Australia.
A spokesman for Philip Morris said in February it was working through “regulatory issues” with a view to launching the “heated not burned” cigarettes, marketed overseas as IQOS, in Australia.
However, the Australian government has made clear those regulatory issues amount to a ban at this point.
The legal stoush across the Tasman seems unlikely to help the tobacco giant’s cause.
The New Zealand Ministry of Health notified the company early this year that heated-not-burned products were banned under a section of the Smoke-Free Environments Act because they contained tobacco for oral use.
The controversy flared anew this month when a Philip Morris competitor, Imperial Tobacco, provided the New Zealand Health Ministry with what it said was photographic evidence that Philip Morris was selling the banned product, known as IQOS, to New Zealanders from a website it had set up.
Philip Morris responded by saying Imperial Tobacco was only making an issue of the product because it was at a “competitive disadvantage” and did not have a comparable product of its own.
But the New Zealand government made clear on Thursday that it was taking the matter seriously, saying charges had been laid against Philip Morris at the Wellington District Court and that the case had been set down for a hearing on June 2.
Jason Erickson, general manager of Philip Morris New Zealand, said the company firmly believed it would be helping to advance the government’s goal of securing a smoke-free New Zealand when it introduced its smoke-free product to New Zealand last year.
“The section of the law referenced by the Ministry in its action against Philip Morris was originally put in place in the 1990s to address American-style chewing tobacco,” Mr Erickson said.
“We stand behind IQOS and HEETS [tobacco sticks],” Mr Erickson said. “But it’s clear that old 20th-century laws are not sufficient to address new 21st-century technologies that New Zealand smokers are embracing as they move away from combustible cigarettes.”
Australian Health Minister David Gillespie told Fairfax Media earlier this year Philip Morris’s product would most likely not be covered by exemptions from Australia’s poisons legislation.
The law banning the product in New Zealand is almost identical to that concerning the sale of tobacco products in Australia.
The decision this year by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to retain nicotine on its poisons list further complicates Philip Morris’s plans. The TGA’s decision effectively bans e-cigarettes, or vaporisers, containing nicotine. While the Philip Morris product is not a “vaporiser”, it contains tobacco, which is a nicotine product.
Philip Morris argues its product reduces health risks associated with smoking burned tobacco, and has launched an international marketing campaign saying it wanted a smoke-free future.
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