29 Nov 2023

Disbelief as a smokefree generation slips away

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 29 November 2023

Health professionals and smokefree experts universally expressed disbelief over the new government's moves to roll back dramatic moves aimed at reducing New Zealand's tobacco harm – and they say they'll fight the decision.


Approximately 9 percent of New Zealanders smoke tobacco, down from around 20 percent when Smokefree 2025 targets were put in place in 2011. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The decision that's shocked the health sector was hidden away as the 16th bullet point on page eight of the 15-page New Zealand First coalition agreement, and also on page eight (as the 21st bullet point) on ACT's agreement. 

Labour's world-beating, globally-lauded amendments to our Smokefree legislation are set to be repealed

The amendments would have taken cigarettes out of most dairies, lowered the nicotine levels in ciggies, and denied sales to anyone born after January 1 2009. 

After years of continual tax and excise increases that have gradually cut the number of smokers, this would have been a sea change that introduced a smokefree generation. 

National's variously said that the move was at the behest of its coalition partners and that it would have driven up crime, with gangs getting in on black market cigarettes.

Willis also let slip that the revenue from tobacco sales would also help plug National's funding gap for its promised tax cuts. 

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In an interview with Newshub Nation, finance minister Nicola Willis admitted scrapping Smokefree laws would plug the fiscal gap left by National's proposed foreign buyer tax, which fell out of favour in coalition negotiations. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The tax on a packet of cigarettes is about 70 percent of its price, and the total tax revenue generated by tobacco is about 1.1 percent of total tax revenue, according to estimates by the New Zealand Initiative.

New Zealand First's pre-election literature had described the country's Smokefree 2025 aim as "illusory" – ACT's main objection was the crime angle. 

Health academics and researchers all reached for the same words to describe how they felt about the move – "unbelievable" and "beyond belief". 

Today on The Detail we speak to Professor Chris Bullen from the school of population health at the University of Auckland. He's a public health physician who's been researching, teaching and thinking about smoking-related issues for 20 years. 

And he's a big backer of our Smokefree legislation.

Professor Chris Bullen of The University of Auckland

Professor Chris Bullen of The University of Auckland Photo: Supplied

When he heard the repeal news, "I felt like buying a one way ticket out of New Zealand," he says. 

"I mean seriously, I couldn't believe it."

Bullen says three elements of the plan were world-leading. 

The first was the dramatic reduction in the number of outlets legally allowed to sell tobacco – about 90 percent, from 6000 retail outlets to fewer than 600. That would mean, for example, only 25 outlets in the city of Auckland. 

The second was the fact that the only cigarettes legally available for sale in New Zealand would have most of the nicotine removed, to a level below that of addiction. 

The third was the introduction of a smokefree generation.

"It removes the idea that once you turn a certain age, it's ok," says Bullen. "We're saying 'this is a defective product that kills more than half the people who use it long-term, therefore we're going to do something about it'."

The UK is looking at similar legislation and prime minister Rishi Sunak has promised that in spite of New Zealand scrapping it, he will forge ahead.

In today's episode, Bullen runs through the arguments for getting rid of the amendments to the Smokefree Act and counters them. 

"People who really – I don't believe – looked at the weight of evidence, are making trade-offs in order to get political power.

"But I think this new government has underestimated the public and health professional community's support for the smokefree legislation, and the international community's support for New Zealand's leadership in this area. And we're not going to take this lying down, I can tell you."

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