15 Dec 2022

National accused of regurgitating 'zombie arguments' against tobacco crackdown

9:01 pm on 15 December 2022
Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National is being accused of "reciting tobacco industry spin" and using "zombie arguments" in its opposition to the government's latest efforts to the use of tobacco.

The Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Amendment Bill passed earlier this week with support from Labour, the Greens and Te Paati Māori.

It will slash the number of outlets allowed to sell nicotine products about 90 percent by the end of 2023, ban anyone born after 1 January, 2009, from ever being allowed to legally purchase tobacco, and eventually cut the amount of nicotine allowed in products.

But the 'denicotisation' part of the legislation will not kick in until well after the number of retail outlets has been slashed.

"We think denicotisation of tobacco products should occur first, and then the phase-out from retail," National Party deputy leader Nicola Willis told Morning Report on Wednesday.

"We worry that there hasn't first been an effort to address the demand for the nicotine in the products. We could therefore have a situation where we're seeing a lot of ram-raids on those 600 stores that remain, potentially the emergence of a severe black market."

Andrew Waa, spokesperson for Tupeka Kore - a group of Māori academics and smoking cessation experts - told Morning Report on Thursday it did not matter which order the new restrictions came in.

"I think a lot of these are what we call 'zombie arguments', put up by the tobacco industry. They always say, whenever there are new regulations around tobacco, they talk about illicit trade, they talk about harm to profits and they talk about personal choice. This is just those arguments regurgitated."

Willis denied National was using Big Tobacco talking points, saying National still wanted use to drop.

"I want to see its use reduce over time so that fewer New Zealanders suffer the harms of its effects. But I also live in the real world, and I want to make sure we do that in a way that is practical and doesn't just drive a black market."

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall dismissed Willis' concerns, calling them "tobacco industry spin".

"They have tried to delay this legislation passing the whole way along and have spent decades trying to block measures to tackle smoking," she told RNZ.

"The Smokefree 2025 goal was set in 2011, the sale of tobacco is a sunset industry that has been known for some time. Smoking rates are half what they were 10 years ago and sale of tobacco continues to decline year on year.

"National can't point to any evidence of their claims about ram-raids and a black market other reciting tobacco industry spin."

The 2025 goal for making New Zealand smokefree - defined as fewer than 5 percent of adults smoking - was set in 2011, under a National-led government. National also voted for banning tobacco displays in 2012 and in favour of plain packaging in 2016.

It is not clear yet how the retail outlets still allowed to sell tobacco will be chosen. Waa said while the decision would ultimately fall to the Director-General of Health, there would be consultation and engagement with the industry, communities and iwi first.

"It could be very well it's not dairies - it could end up in supermarkets."

Deputy leader of the National Party Nicola Willis

Nicola Willis. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Waa said research showed a gradual reduction in nicotine content led people to compensate by just consuming more - a sudden drop on the other hand has a "huge impact" in getting people to quit, or at least switch to vapes.

The ACT Party has claimed up to 80 percent of dairies will go out of business if they can't sell cigarettes. Verrall said a survey of 25 smoke-free dairies in Northland (which has a large Māori population, so a higher proportion of smokers than many other regions) found 88 percent reported experiencing either a positive or neutral financial impact.

Waa called ACT's claims "simply untrue".

"The margin of profit… is so small these days because of the tax and the cut that the tobacco industry takes… National has got it wrong."

Ultimately, he said it was "appalling to me people are arguing profits before lives".

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