21 Apr 2021

New moves in the never-ending battle against tobacco

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 April 2021
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Photo: 123RF

All things considered, smoking has had a pretty rapid fall from grace.

Back in the 1970s, more than one in three New Zealanders were cigarette smokers.

Even up until the mid-90s you could spot the Marlboro logo in Formula 1 races; Benson and Hedges was spruiked at cricket matches; the actual NRL grand prize, the Winfield Cup, was named after a brand of cigarettes.

But over the past couple of decades, the landscape has utterly changed.

Cigarette advertising was banned, as were sponsorships. Airplanes went smokefree - then bars and restaurants.

A decade of relentless tax hikes sent the price of a packet of smokes into the stratosphere: nowadays, a pack of 20 cigarettes will set you back more than $30.

And as all these initiatives arose, smoking rates plummeted: now, according to Smokefree NZ, just 11.6 percent of New Zealanders are daily smokers.

The youth rate - 15-17 year-olds who smoke every day - is down at 3 percent; an 80 percent drop compared to 15 years ago.

And with the government's goal of a Smokefree New Zealand by 2025 less than four years away, associate health minister Ayesha Verrall has called in the cavalry, unveiling a suite of proposals which she hopes will be the final nail in the coffin for the number one cause of preventable death worldwide.

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan sits down with Otago University public health expert Professor Janet Hoek to explain what exactly is being proposed; whether it's likely to be effective; and whether a Smokefree 2025 is, indeed, realistic.

Among the most dramatic of the proposals is the 'smokefree generation'.

If enacted, this would essentially bar anyone born after 2004 from ever buying tobacco. Ever. Even if they're 90 years old.

"I think it's a really important idea", says Janet Hoek.

"It will protect young people. And it also means that once we get to the goal [of Smokefree 2025] we're going to stay there: we have a cohort of young people coming through for whom smoking is simply not part of their lifestyle, not accessible to them."

Asked whether this impinges on people's freedoms, Hoek says cigarettes, on the contrary, take away freedom: they are an addictive product, one which when used as intended hooks the consumer and shortens their life, often killing them.

Another proposal would see nicotine levels in cigarettes being reduced over time - meaning a smoker wouldn't get as much of a hit from a cigarette as currently.

Hoek says this would be a game-changer, making smoking less addictive; however, critics like Māori health advocate Selah Hart, fear this could result in smokers being forced to spend more money on cigarettes to satisfy their cravings.

Also among the proposals, slashing the number of tobacco retailers by 95 percent from the 5,000 or so stores currently able to sell cigarettes; requiring all outlets to hold licenses; and ensuring Māori - who are over-represented in smoking statistics and the flow-on impacts - have a much stronger voice when further smoking policy is developed.

Filters could also be banned (partly because of their environmental impacts); and a minimum price for tobacco established.

Hoek says these new initiatives go some way to developing a rounded policy to stub out smoking, which has been sorely missed over the past decade since New Zealand first announced its Smokefree 2025 aspiration.