New Zealand’s new government will scrap the country’s world-leading law to ban smoking for future generations to help pay for tax cuts – a move that public health officials believe will cost thousands of lives and be “catastrophic” for Māori communities.
In 2022 the country passed pioneering legislation which introduced a steadily rising smoking age to stop those born after January 2009 from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes. The law was designed to prevent thousands of smoking-related deaths and save the health system billions of dollars.
The legislation, which is thought have inspired a plan in the UK to phase out smoking for future generations, contained a slew of other measures to make smoking less affordable and accessible. It included dramatically reducing the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products, allowing their sale only through special tobacco stores, and slashing the number of stores legally allowed to sell cigarettes from 6,000 to just 600 nationwide.
The laws were due to be implemented from July 2024. But as part of its coalition agreement with populist New Zealand First, the New Zealand National Party agreed to repeal the amendments, including “removing requirements for de-nicotisation, removing the reduction in retail outlets and the generation ban”.
On Saturday, the new finance minister, Nicola Willis, said the measures will be axed before March 2024, with the revenue from cigarette sales going toward the coalition’s tax cuts. National has had to find new ways to fund its tax plan, afterNew Zealand First rejected a proposal to let foreign buyers back into the property market.
Treasury’s pre-election fiscal update said that reducing the number of shops that could sell tobacco products, and the range of restrictions would significantly reduce revenue , Ms Willis told Newshub Nation.
“Coming back to those extra sources of revenue and other savings areas that will help us to fund the tax reduction, we have to remember that the changes to the smoke-free legislation had a significant impact on the government books – with about $1 billion there.”
Ms Willis said coalition partners Act and New Zealand First were “insistent” on reversing the restrictions.
Prime minister Christopher Luxon said the reversal would prevent a hidden tobacco market cropping up and stop shops from being targeted for crime.
“Concentrating the distribution of cigarettes in one store in one small town is going to be a large magnet for crime,” Mr Luxon told Radio New Zealand.
Mr Luxon said his government would continue to lower smoking rates through education and other smoking policies.
But public health experts have expressed shock at the policy reversal, saying it could cost up to 5,000 lives a year, and be particularly detrimental to Māori, who have higher smoking rates.
“This is big loss for public health, and a huge win for the tobacco industry – whose profits will be boosted at the expense of Kiwi lives,” said Prof Lisa Te Morenga, the chair of non-government industry group Health Coalition Aotearoa.
Prof Te Morenga highlighted recent modelling that showed the regulations would save $1.3 billion in health system costs over the next 20 years, if fully implemented, and would reduce mortality rates by 22 per cent for women, and 9 per cent for men.
“Turning the tide on harmful products that are entrenched in society cannot be done by individuals, or even communities,” prof Te Morenga said. “It takes good – and brave – population-level policies.”
The leading Māori public health organisation, Hāpai the Hauora, said the reversal will be “catastrophic for Māori communities”.
“This move suggests a disregard for the voices of the communities most affected by tobacco harm – favouring economic interests,” said chief executive Jason Alexander. – Guardian