Minister blasts local US trade group

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Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie is not at all happy that the American Chamber of Commerce in Norway opposes a government proposal aimed at further restricting use of tobacco products. Høie claims the chamber’s arguments promote the interests of the tobacco industry and not those of life and health.

Health Minister Bent Høie has reacted sharply to the American Chamber of Commerce's objections to a proposed anti-smoking measure. PHOTO: Helse- og omsorgsdepartementet

Health Minister Bent Høie has reacted sharply to the American Chamber of Commerce’s objections to a proposed anti-smoking measure. PHOTO: Helse- og omsorgsdepartementet

At issue is a proposal from Høie’s ministry to require “standardized” packaging of tobacco products, featuring no brand names or tobacco company logos. Høie, from the generally pro-business Conservative Party, backs the proposal from Norway’s state department of health and welfare.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Wednesday that the American Chamber of Commerce Norway (AmCham), which claims it aims to develop Norwegian-American business relations, has expressed its skepticism towards the plan. In testimony submitted in connection with the plan’s public hearing process, AmCham expressed its concern regarding “state-sanctioned” removal of brand names through introduction of standardized tobacco packaging. AmCham concluded that there already are other effective means of regulating tobacco consumption in the public interest. Imposing measures that would destroy the rights of a producer of a legal product, regardless of the product’s sector, “is not one of them,” according to AmCham, and asked Norwegian authorities to refrain from it.

Høie reacted sharply to AmCham’s input on the issue. “I hope all the companies that are members of AmCham are aware they are members of an organization that promotes the interests of the tobacco industry at the cost of people’s life and health,” Høie told Aftenposten. He added that AmCham members involved in the health care industry and “committed to saving lives,” such as pharmaceutical companies, should be “especially aware” of AmCham’s stand.

Promoting members’ interests
The chamber, which carries an ad from “patron member” British American Tobacco Co on its web site among others, claims to promote the interests of around 225 Norwegian, American and international members including companies and organizations. They include dominant Norwegian dairy cooperative Tine, Thon Hotels, Statoil and Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, among others.

Tine responded that AmCham’s “engagement” in the tobacco-packaging issue goes against Tine’s own position. Tine noted that it was “too early,” though, to say what consequences that may have for its membership in AmCham. Statoil said it would leave it to the authorities to comment on the hearing process, but added that it did not back AmCham’s position. Nor did pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, which said it supported restrictive tobacco policy and measures that would help people stop smoking. “Public health considerations must be more important than the tobacco industry’s interests,” Pfizer responded.

Thon Hotels, meanwhile, noted that tobacco was a legal product that also is taxed. “But there’s no doubt it damages health,” the company responded, additing it was difficult to take a specific stand.

Up for a vote later this year
Aftenposten reported that AmCham officials didn’t want to respond to Høie’s criticism, nor would it respond to the reaction Aftenposten gathered from some of its members. The chamber claimed it does not support use of tobacco.

Jason Turflinger, managing director of AmCham, said the organization nonetheless strongly believes that the Norwegian government should continue to maintain the rights to use international brand names in a non-discriminatory manner. He said AmCham had expressed its opinions in several areas and would continue to do so on issues that affect a broad spectrum of its members.

Norway started imposing strict anti-smoking measures around 20 years ago and bans now exist in most all public, and even private, areas. The government also forced retailers to removed their tobacco products from public display, and customers already must specifically ask for them when buying, for example, cigarettes or snuff. The new tobacco packaging restrictions are expected to be put forth in Parliament later this year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund