12 Feb 2024

Smokescreen: Expert rubbishes govt claim of black market over smokefree legislation

12:43 pm on 12 February 2024
young woman smoking

File photo. Photo: Unsplash / fotografierende

There is no evidence to support the government's claim that smokefree laws would lead to an illicit tobacco black market, a public health expert says.

The government is set to repeal legislation from the previous Labour government that would have banned the sale of tobacco to anyone born from 1 January 2009, cut the number of retailers, and denicotinised cigarettes.

It has argued the legislation would lead to a rise in crime and a black market.

In November, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon told Morning Report the legislation would concentrate all tobacco distribution in a few shops, and there were still questions about how the legislation would have been enforced.

"You can't not tell me that will be a massive target for ramraids and crime; there will be an increased black market - an untaxed black market - for cigarette smokes," he said at the time.

But University of Auckland professor Chris Bullen said since the Smokefree Aotearoa goal came in in 2011, there had been no increase in the proportion of illicit tobacco products, and the absolute size of the illicit market had declined.

"We haven't seen that in New Zealand over more than a decade of increasing the price of tobacco. In fact, all of the evidence points to a decline. That may be in part due to a reduction in demand for cigarettes, because much fewer people are smoking, and they're smoking fewer cigarettes."

Chris Bullen, Professor of  Population Health  Auckland University says messaging over alcohol and pregnancy is inconsistent.

University of Auckland professor Chris Bullen says Photo: RNZ Insight/Philippa Tolley

Tobacco companies have to declare to the Ministry of Health what was being released into New Zealand.

"By looking at the last 10 years of those records, the volumes of tobacco, reflecting demand for it, have been dropping quite dramatically. Smokers also report smoking less. The gap between what the tobacco companies release into the market and what people say they're smoking is also declining, suggesting that while there is illegal tobacco in the country, it's not increasing," Bullen said.

Bullen said the government should implement the legislation, and support Customs to continue to keep illicit products out of the country.

The claim of a rising black market was also used by the tobacco industry.

Bullen said the argument was a "zombie argument" that refused to die, and that politicians needed to think hard about repeating arguments used by the industry.

"The tobacco industry, it's in its interests to claim that things are bad so that the government takes its foot off the tobacco control accelerator pedal.

"They want to keep selling more product, they don't want the volumes of tobacco to be going down, because that would mean losing business. It's in their interest to have political support, whether it's conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, for slowing the game down."

He has urged the government to keep the smokefree legislation.

"I just think unfortunately this government has been scared off, or persuaded by voices directly or indirectly from industry, that meant we're not going to see the best outcome here. And that will play out in the ongoing misery and premature death for thousands of people who shouldn't have experienced that if the existing act was allowed to play out over the next few years."

Bullen said Customs was getting better at detecting and seizing illicit tobacco, and the government should continue to support that.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs