12 Jul 2019

Tobacco company targeting Māori for money - minister

5:03 pm on 12 July 2019

A tobacco company is targeting Māori with its new e-cigarette because it wants to make money and not because it's concerned about public health, Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa says.

An RNZ investigation, Smoke and Mirrors, revealed this week that Philip Morris is selling its IQOS device at half price and offering other discount deals at marketing drives targeted at Māori, which are held at marae and rugby league clubs in South Auckland.

Philip Morris claims its IQOS product, which heats tobacco rather than burns it, is 90 percent safer than cigarettes - although some experts say the harm could eventually prove similar to smoking.

Catch up on the Smoke and Mirrors investigation

Big Tobacco targeting Māori with e-cigarettes

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Jenny Salesa

Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa says she's sceptical of big tobacco comapanies' claims. Photo: RNZ Pacific: Sela Jane Hopgood

About 37 percent of Māori women smoke - nearly three times the rate of the general population - and Philip Morris claim the goal of what they call "community activations" in Māori communities is to help smokers quit cigarettes.

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Philip Morris is targeting Māori with its IQOS. Photo: RNZ/ Luke McPake

But Ms Salesa, the minister responsible for regulating e-cigarettes and vaping, is unconvinced.

"I'm extremely sceptical of any claims of big tobacco companies - be it Philip Morris or any other tobacco companies - saying that they are somehow wanting to help Māori people or Pacific people with smoking," she said in an interview with Checkpoint.

"Tobacco companies have long claimed somehow to want to help people in this space but what I can say is I think they are only really truly answerable to their shareholders and so I am very very sceptical of their claims."

Philip Morris NZ general manager James Williams had said the company did a lot of "community outreach" with Māori because some had "out of pocket issues" or didn't have credit cards.

"We don't want to make pricing an inhibiting factor for them," Mr Williams said.

Philip Morris New Zealand’s general manager James Williams.

James Williams calls the marketing drives at marae and league clubs 'community activations'. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

Ms Salesa said she opposed those tactics and was also dismissive of the company's claim that it wants to exit the cigarette business.

"My message to them is if they are wanting to exit this business of selling cigarettes, nothing is stopping them from stopping selling cigarettes right now."

Mr Williams told RNZ this week that any "premature move" by Philip Morris wouldn't change the industry and he needed competitors to "come along this journey with us as well".

Vaping is unregulated in New Zealand with no minimum safety product standards in place. Ms Salesa said she intends to introduce legislation to regulate vaping in about three months time.

The thrust of the legislation is to improve access to "quality vaping products" as the government sees vaping as a viable smoking cessation tool and believes there is a scientific consensus they are significantly less harmful than cigarettes.

That is still contested ground, however, with many international researchers expressing concerns about an increased risk of stroke, cardiovascular risk and lung tissue damage associated with e-cigarette use.

A JUUL device charges on a laptop, beside JUUL pods.

US vaping JUUL is headed for New Zealand. Photo: 123RF

RNZ also revealed this week that the largest US vaping brand, JUUL, part-owned by the parent company of Philip Morris, plans to launch in New Zealand this year.

Ms Salesa said the new legislation would ensure that the youth uptake of JUUL in the US - described by the FDA as reaching an "epidemic proportion" - would not be replicated in New Zealand.

The new laws would introduce maximum nicotine levels, ban flavours appealing to youth and restrict the advertising and marketing of vaping products.