28 Nov 2023

Government defending the indefensible in scrapping smokefree efforts - health leader

8:56 am on 28 November 2023
National MP Nicola Willis speaks while Shane Reti looks on during the Virtual National Party 2020 Campaign Launch at Avalon Studios on September 20, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Shane Reti and Nicola Willis. Photo: Pool / Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

Finance Minister Nicola Willis insists she and the new government want to see fewer people smoking, despite relying on smokers to fund planned tax cuts.

The coalition arrangement National made with ACT and NZ First saw the scrapping of the party's plan to allow foreign buyers back into the New Zealand market, but with a hefty tax.

That left a significant hole in the finances, which Willis previously admitted would be filled by scrapping plans to crack down on smoking, which the Ministry of Health says still kills 5000 Kiwis a year despite usage dropping over the past couple of decades.

Labour had planned to restrict smoking sales to around 600 outlets nationwide. for comparison, there are more than that many liquor stores in Auckland alone - and about 3000 off-licences countrywide. The party also wanted to progressively raise the age of purchase, effectively cutting off legal supply of cigarettes to a whole new generation, and reduce nicotine levels.

The new government's scrapping of these initiatives saw critics on social media over the weekend dub the deputy National Party leader 'Nicotine Willis', and Health Minister Shane Reti, 'Shane Cigareti'.

Asked on RNZ's First Up if Willis was "happy to endorse" the current death toll from smoking, she said "absolutely not".

"Our policy is to maintain all of the existing restrictions on smoking in New Zealand - the age limits, the health warnings, the smoking cessation programs, all of the things that New Zealand has been doing over the past few years to limit people's access to smoking, to make sure people know, don't start smoking it's really bad for you, to help people quit smoking.

"Our government is going to continue that - we continue to want fewer people to be smoking."

The Smokefree 2025 goal was set in place in 2011 by the National-led government, following a report by the Māori Affairs Committee.

Willis said restricting sales to a few hundred locations nationwide and reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes could "lead to a massive black market and heaven for the gangs, but also ram raids and retail crime on the remaining stores".

"So absolutely, we still want to see lower numbers of people smoking, but we do not think that the outgoing government's policy is the best way to achieve that credible one."

Willis said the government was not scrapping any initiatives "proven to have worked".

Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop arrive at Welly airport

Nicola Willis with National MP Chris Bishop, who before entering Parliament worked for global tobacco giant Philip Morris. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"What we are not doing is doing something very new and novel that the outgoing government had planned for the future.

"And as I say, it is not even clear actually how restricting tobacco purchasing to availability in just 600 stores would have worked in practice, because if you think there are a lot of ram raids now, I hate to think how many ram raids those 600 stores could have faced."

Police data showed after spiking up after the Covid-19 lockdowns, ram raid occurrences have fallen about a third this year, trending down, but still happening at a significantly higher rate than pre-Covid.

At the same time the government announced its intention to scrap the planned tightening of restrictions on cigarettes, ACT leader - and future deputy prime minister - David Seymour announced pseudoephedrine would be returning to pharmacy shelves.

"I think that that's the policy that he campaigned on, and I think it's a medicine that's of therapeutic benefit to New Zealanders and they wanted to see it brought back obviously," Willis said. "As a government we've agreed to do that.

From leaders to laggards

College of Public Health Medicine president Sir Collin Tukuitonga told Morning Report smoking was one of the largest risks of preventable disease and premature death in Aotearoa.

He said while smoking rates would likely continue to drop, it would drop "very slowly" compared to before, "especially for Māori and Pasifika people".

"What the legislation, the whole package allowed us to do was to accelerate that drop down to below 5 percent in 2025.

"In other words, I disagree with [Prime Minister Christopher] Luxon. I think the Smokefree 2025 goal is achievable for the majority of New Zealanders - perhaps not for Māori and Pasifika people because the smoking rates are higher and declining slowly."

Sir Collin said Willis and Luxon were "trying to defend a situation that's not defendable", in arguing cutting the number of nicotine retailers would result in more ram raids.

"I don't know how you can make those kinds of statements, but obviously, that's the influence of the tobacco industry on our new leadership.

"I think it's clearly disappointing - almost Orwellian dystopia, isn't it? Completely bereft of good reason.

"And the other thing I would say is that we are regarded as a world leader in setting smoke free legislation and we're going to go from being world leader to world laggard. It's extremely disappointing."

Auckland University associate professor of public health Dr Collin Tukuitonga says the fact people aren’t recording their RAT results highlights the shortcomings of the Ministry of Health’s daily case numbers.

Sir Collin Tukuitonga. Photo: RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF

He said modelling showed the decision would result in about 1000 extra deaths over the next decade, mostly Māori, and cost the health system $1.3 billion.

"Education clearly has some impact, but it's not enough. That's why legislation and education and community involvement and good, strong leadership are all needed to try and tackle public health problems like smoking."

'Fiscal cliffs'

Elsewhere in the interview, Willis talked about "fiscal cliffs" and "fiscal risks" National supposedly found in the government books that were not made clear in the Pre-Election Fiscal Update. She gave one example - funding for certain medicines, the cost of which was "larger than I would have expected".

"What Labour had done was they hadn't actually budgeted for those things to continue in the future - meaning if we want them to continue, we're going to have to find money from somewhere for them."

She would not elaborate on the so-called "fiscal risks", saying the government would have "a lot more transparent statements about this over the coming days and weeks" as it put together its "mini mini-budget" before Christmas.

Combined cyclone / emergency role

Willis also talked about the lack of a cyclone recovery minister in the new Cabinet, which disappointed some hard-hit East Coast residents.

"Mark Mitchell is the minister for emergency management and recovery," she explained. "What we've done there is combined the portfolios - there's always been an emergency management role and then in recent times, there's also been the cyclone recovery role and they have been separate roles.

"We've combined those two roles into the emergency management and recovery minister, and you can expect to see Mark engaging heavily with the communities affected by flooding and cyclone events."

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