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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (August 1, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---It is barely conceivable that a rich nation would give cash aid to a multinational tobacco firm so that it could build a cigarette factory in a Third World country.

The fact that New Zealand did just that continues to cause red faces 24 years on.

Wellington School of Medicine researcher George Thomson believes the result of the aid was simple: "Hundreds of early deaths seems a conservative estimate."

Two of the key players are dead and another is not talking, but long after other New Zealand aid projects have faded from the Pacific its cigarette factory continues to churn out its product.

In 1976 New Zealand launched a series of dawn raids and random street arrests on Pacific Island immigration overstayers, outraging the worst affected, Tonga and Samoa.

As a consolation New Zealand began an aid project designed to encourage industries to open up in the Pacific.

In 1978 Rothmans Industries Limited won a grant of NZ$ 346,000 (US$ 161,288) and around NZ$ 1.5 million (US$ 699,225) today to fund the construction of a cigarette factory.

The deal was sown up between then New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, now dead, and Samoan Prime Minister Tupuola Efi, now paramount chief Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Public meetings were organized and the National Hospital's Chief Surgeon, John Atherton, who was married into Tupuola's family, noted that a cardiac team from New Zealand had just visited the country.

"It was not publicized, however, that the same team is predominantly concerned in Auckland with treating patients with cigarette related diseases, by which I mean diseases of the heart, lungs and arteries ... It is not too fanciful to think that in a few years that same team will be treating Samoan patients with these conditions," Atherton said.

Samoa's top novelist, now academic, Albert Wendt, appealed to stop the factory.

"It takes more than a politician, it takes a statesman," he said. "It would take courage to admit that a mistake had been made."

A leading Mormon spokesman, Tufuga Sam Atoa, added: "New Zealand gave us the money to build (the National Hospital) and now they are giving us money to fill the hospital."

Officially New Zealand says the episode was not embarrassing. "The decision made in the late 1970s ... reflected attitudes of the time in both countries," Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) spokesman Brad Tattersfield told AFP.

Researcher George Thomson has produced documents noting official unease here. A Treasury official, Michael Irwin, at the time noted on file that there should be a reservation expressed to the Samoan Government.

He added: "I assume (MFAT) did do so -- but I bet it was pretty muted as they regarded it (I suspect) as rather silly. Needless to say I didn't and don't."

Tattersfield said officials had reviewed their files: "It seems there is no evidence on file that officials from our Ministry expressed reservations to the Samoan Government at the time, nor is there evidence that officials regarded such reservations as silly."

The key to the project was the link then between Rothmans and the then ruling National Party. Rothmans was headquartered in Napier and its mayor, the late Peter Tait, was a party member.

Rothmans approached him and Thomson has found documents showing pressure on the government to finance the tobacco factory. At the time officials in Apia believed Muldoon strong-armed Samoa into taking the factory as a way of supporting a party helper back home.

Thomson is careful not to say the factory led directly to deaths: "What is highly likely is that the opposite alternative -- the same money invested in tobacco control help -- would have decreased deaths and saved lives."

He claims that given the tobacco related cancer death rate in Samoa, spending the money on control measures would have led to 1,000 fewer deaths.

A month ago New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark apologized to Samoa for colonial era deaths from influenza and the suppression of a political movement.

Thomson says there is now another reason to say sorry.

"We have to face the consequences... We need to deal with the consequences of New Zealand's past actions. Apologies to me are basically rhetoric."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website: 

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