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Jim Burns, who in 1994 went from working in the office of the then Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, to be corporate affairs manager of Wills New Zealand, part of British American Tobacco (BAT), is once again in a post that has vital implications for tobacco control. Burns went to work abroad for eight years, most recently in the USA, where he was the vice-president, corporate and regulatory affairs at Lane Limited. Lane was part of BAT and became part of Reynolds American in 2004.
Burns is now back in New Zealand, as executive director of the New Zealand United States Council, which is “the principal organisation representing the business sector as part of New Zealand’s initiative to obtain a Free Trade Agreement with the United States and is committed to enhancing the overall relationship between the two countries”. The chairman of the Council is his old boss, former premier Jim Bolger.
One of the long term issues for tobacco control in New Zealand and elsewhere is the threatened use of international intellectual property law to defend the “rights” of tobacco companies to control what is printed on cigarette packs, including health warnings. Action to require better warnings, such as the government is considering, has also been seen by tobacco companies as a “trade barrier”. Both the advantages to business of international intellectual property law, and the issue of “trade barriers”, are of great interest to the New Zealand United States Council.
Burns was active with BAT in the period when the tobacco industry was fighting to have the New Zealand Public Health Commission (PHC) abolished, largely because of the Commission’s advice to government, provided by Dr Murray Laugesen. BAT celebrated when the Commission was closed down. A December 1994 fax from Burns to BAT UK stated:
“Clearly, we can’t take the total credit for its demise and individuals like Dr Laugesen won’t go away but the death of the PHC is a damn fine Christmas present.”
In 1995, Jim Burns was expressing some of the tobacco industry’s apprehension generated by possible litigation, organised by lawyer David Collins, as can be seen in Burn’s memo of August 1995:
“I remain concerned that Collins and the potential plaintiffs are capturing the media ground on this issue and are managing to make the prospect of possibly taking some action sound like they are actually taking some action and are winning the battle. Occasionally, I have a nightmare that somehow, from somewhere Collins will come up with a million dollars to bankroll a serious challenge.”
Ironically, David Collins is now running New Zealand’s first substantial legal action, for the estate of lung cancer victim Janice Pou. The case is scheduled to finally go to court this year, after several years of delaying tactics by BAT.