15 Apr 2021

Smokefree Aotearoa 2025: Pharmacy tobacconists, raising buying age proposed

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 15 April 2021

People currently under 18 may not be able to buy cigarettes when they become adults, while older generations may legally be able to smoke to the grave, as part of a new policy that would effectively cut off the supply to new smokers and phase out tobacco sales in New Zealand.

The proposal is part of a shake-up aimed at reaching the government's target of Smokefree Aotearoa by 2025. 

About 29 percent of Māori smoke and more than 18 percent of Pasifika people smoke, although across the board the average is lower. 

The other changes being floated include slashing the number of tobacco retailers based on population density, licensing all sellers, setting a minimum price for tobacco products, and reducing nicotine levels. 

New Zealand would miss the smoke-free by 2025 target without such changes, Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall told Checkpoint

"We're currently at a smoking rate of about 11.6 percent and the goal is to be at 5 percent by 2025. So we clearly have to do more," she said.  

"There are a lot of inequalities in smoking. For Māori women, they wouldn't reach the target of 5 percent until 2060 unless we take a different approach, so that's why we're putting fresh proposals on the table for how to get there." 

The new plan involves increasing the age limit for cigarette sales by one year each year. 

"A generation would come through that wouldn't have tobacco, and you could do that either indefinitely, which would be the most extreme way of doing it, or you could do it just for say, five years, until the age of purchase went up to reach an age where people were unlikely to take up smoking, if they hadn't already. 

"There's a number of ways you could do it. We're trying to get to 5 percent in the short term, so we're not really planning for policy in 20 years' time." 

Legally the government can set a different age of purchase, Verrall said. 

"The question is how far you can go with that, and we're interested in people's feedback on that question.  

"But certainly we know that to achieve a smoke-free goal for the future, we have to do two things. We have to help current smokers quit, and we certainly need to stop new, young people from starting. So the smoke-free generation is directed at that second part."

'Huge number' of smoking-related deaths in NZ each year 

About 4500 people died from smoking in New Zealand each year, Verrall said.  

"That's a huge number of people … I think 4500 people in our country dying a year from a single product is an incredibly important public health problem to act on, and I've put forward proposals that I think in combination could give us a real chance of achieving that goal." 

Currently, it is estimated up to 8000 outlets in New Zealand sell smoking tobacco. 

"It's an estimate because we don't even know how many outlets we have because we don't have licensing. It strikes me as amazing that for a retailer to sell a sandwich they need to be licensed, but they don't need to be licensed to sell tobacco. 

"One of the things about licensing [is], it gives you baseline information of the retailers, so you can then make decisions about licensing fees, or you can make decisions about the density of licensed retailers in particular areas.  

"One of the really tough things with the inequalities we have, with higher rates of smoking for Māori communities, is that communities where Māori live have much higher rates of outlets with tobacco being sold. So it is very hard to quit from an addictive substance when it's under your nose the entire time." 

One way of approaching the issue of tobacco retail density could be to put a limit around proximity to schools, she said. 

Another consideration in the government's discussion document is to limit the sale of tobacco to pharmacies.  

"That means small retailers like convenience stores, dairies, wouldn't lose the sale of grocery items to their competitors if they stopped selling tobacco.  

"Also pharmacies are staffed by health professionals. So it puts the sale of tobacco in a harm minimisation frame and puts it more in line with say the methadone programme where people with an addiction, come to a health professional to get tobacco. 

"This is something we want to hear from retailers, pharmacists and other professionals on.  

"And it is not the only way that we move away from sales through convenience stores. We could for example set up an altogether new category of retailer - a tobacconist - as has been done in some European countries.  

"If we moved on these proposals we would need to resource enforcement better, both at the border, but also making sure we've got staff looking at social media and other areas to see if people are trying to sell tobacco online." 

The tobacco industry had a lot of power and resources, so Verrall said MPs would be scrutinising who was involved in the submission process. 

"We won't know through the submission process if they're a paid submitter, but I think we, in the course of public debate on this issue, do need to make sure that we're doing due diligence on all the representations that are made about these policies.  

"We know the tobacco industry has previously set up groups to advocate on their behalf while pretending to be at arm's length from big tobacco."

People can have their say on the proposals until 31 May.  

The Ministry of Health is asking anyone who submits to disclose whether they have any direct or indirect links to or receive funding from the tobacco industry.