A campaign to "save our stores" from a smokefree initiative looks like a grassroots effort. The truth is more complicated.
Since 1 August, ads have started showing up on Facebook urging people to support a petition to "save our stores".
The ads, which lead to a website called Save Our Stores, ask users to sign a petition to repeal the Smokefree 2025 Act. The act includes a measure to reduce the number of stores selling full strength tobacco from 6000 nationwide to 600 by July 2024.
At first glance, the campaign appears to be an initiative from dairy owners. Under a headline of "who we are" on the website's "about us" page, a dairy owner said to be from Lower Hutt is featured: "My name is Bhavesh. I'm a dairy owner in Lower Hutt. I've been serving customers for 17 years."
The website encourages dairy owners to get involved by printing out posters to display in their stores. These include messages in bold type warning: "This dairy is under threat of closure" with a QR code which leads to the website.
The tobacco companies declined to be interviewed. A joint statement sent to RNZ from British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands did not directly answer the question whether it was obvious enough to consumers the website was created by tobacco companies. But it did say the two companies were "supporting the voice of New Zealand's small convenience store owners being pushed out of business".
'Driving voice' of the campaign
The tobacco companies said Bhavesh was "the driving voice" behind the campaign.
When RNZ asked to interview him, however, the companies said he "reserves his requested right to privacy". A photo of Bhavesh was removed from the campaign website after RNZ's inquiries.
RNZ has identified a man named Bhavesh who owns a store in Lower Hutt. When contacted about the campaign, he said he was away and "unsure what you mean". RNZ has not verified if he is the person cited by the tobacco companies as "the driving voice" of the campaign.
The statement said retailers were facing costs to apply for a licence to become one of the 600 stores allowed to sell cigarettes after July 2024.
"As such, we have provided Bhavesh and a number of small convenience retailers with a platform to let their communities know about the challenges they are facing because of the latest Smokefree 2025 laws."
The ad campaign
Fourteen Facebook ads which lead to the website feature numerous messages. Some show what appear to be dairy owners with the 'save our stores' message, but others include messages saying the new laws could give gangs more power, more ram raids will occur if fewer stores stock cigarettes, and tobacco taxes bring in enough revenue to pay for 35,000 police officers.
New Zealand has approximately 11,000 police officers and tax from tobacco goes into a consolidated fund. It's not earmarked for police, or any other specific purpose.
Most of the advertisements started running on 1 August and to date have been seen between 158,000 and 200,986 times, according to Facebook data. They cost between $1300 and $2686 to be promoted on Facebook.
The tobacco companies ignored a question about who was paying for the Facebook advertising. They also ignored a question asking if the advertisement saying tobacco tax funds 35,000 police was misleading.
"I think these advertisements show us just how deeply hypocritical tobacco companies are," said University of Otago Health Professor Janet Hoek.
"On the one hand these are the companies that are telling us that they are trying to transform their business, that they want to 'unsmoke the world' and yet what we see them doing is supporting the continuing sales of tobacco products."
"Unsmoke your world" is a Phillip Morris campaign. BAT's global website states the company wants to build a "better tomorrow" by reducing its health impact through less risky products. Imperial Brands has a similar claim, saying it wants to transform to create less harmful products.
Hoek also noted the campaign website claimed more than 6000 shops rely on tobacco sales for up to 55 percent of their revenue. This appears to be based on a survey done by Imperial Brands of 1000 dairy owners.
Only around 8 percent of New Zealanders still smoke cigarettes daily and research Hoek has been involved with in Dunedin, Auckland and Wellington which surveyed shoppers leaving dairies showed only 14 percent of shoppers purchased tobacco. The research also looked at how many people bought tobacco as well as other items at the same time and discovered only 5 to 6 percent of shoppers purchased other items with cigarettes.
Talk of an increase in crime was a "typical doomsday narrative" from the industry, she said.
Hoek pointed to research by KPMG funded by Imperial Brands which estimated the percentage of illicit tobacco smoked in New Zealand has risen from 11.5 percent in 2019 to 12.1 percent in 2023.
She called this change small compared to increases in excise duty and pointed out the KPMG study also showed the amount of illicit tobacco smoked had decreased 27.3 percent. The consumption of legal tobacco also fell during this time period at a higher rate of 30 percent.
Some dairy owners are concerned
Dairy and Business Owners Group chairperson Sunny Kaushal represents around 6000 businesses, including many independent dairies. He said his group had nothing to do with the BAT and Imperial Brands campaign.
"We know smoking is on the way out," he said. "We are not asking for it to be reversed as that ship has sailed."
However, many members of his group do share the concerns the campaign raises about a loss of revenue and he said some members fear they may go out of business.
The organisation would like to see changes to the rules. These include extending the changes out by 18 months and incentivising the adoption of low nicotine products, which shops will still be allowed to sell, by reducing the excise duty on them to zero.
"If you have a low nicotine tobacco pack and on the other hand the gangs are selling a full tobacco pack at the same rate, people will not buy low nicotine," said Kaushal.
He believed dairies could play a role in helping smokers switch to less harmful products if they were allowed to. Currently, he said staff are not allowed to suggest smokers consider switching to other products, such as vapes.
Ben Youdan from smokefree advocacy group ASH NZ said he believed many retailers have genuine concerns. He worried their voices were lost when they aligned themselves with tobacco company campaigns.
The ads exploited retailers and showed tobacco companies "hiding behind the little guy".
Both Youdan and Shane Bradbrook, a Māori public health advocate, said the tactics weren't new. They had seen them used against workplace smoking and retail display measures.
Similar campaigns have occurred offshore. In 2008, British MPs were fooled by a 'save our shop' campaign they thought was from independent retailers protesting rules for displaying cigarettes. The campaign was run by the Tobacco Retailers' Association which was linked to tobacco companies British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher.
Bradbrook called the save our stores campaign a "stock standard approach".
"The issue I have is seeing again the tobacco industry linked with attacking basically a government policy."