New Zealand’s new government will scrap the nation’s law to ban smoking for future generations to help fund tax cuts – a move that public health officials say will cost thousands of lives and will be “catastrophic” for Māori communities.
In 2022, the country passed pioneering legislation that introduced a steady increase in the smoking age to prevent people born after January 2009 from being able to legally purchase cigarettes. The law was designed to prevent thousands of tobacco-related deaths and save the health care system billions of dollars.
The legislation, which would have inspired a UK plan to phase out smoking for future generations, contained a series of other measures aimed at making smoking less affordable and less accessible. These included significantly reducing the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products, allowing their sale only in special tobacco stores, and reducing the number of stores legally allowed to sell cigarettes from 6,000 to just 600 in all the countries.
The laws were to be implemented from July 2024. But as part of its coalition deal with the populist New Zealand First party, National agreed to repeal the amendments, including “removing denicotisation requirements, removing of the reduction of points of sale and the ban on generation”. “.
On Saturday, new finance minister Nicola Willis said the measures would be removed before March 2024, with revenue from cigarette sales earmarked for the coalition’s tax cuts. National has had to find new ways to finance its tax plan, after its coalition partner, New Zealand First, rejected a proposal to allow foreign buyers to re-enter the property market.
The Treasury’s pre-election budget update indicated that reducing the number of stores that could sell tobacco products and the range of restrictions would significantly reduce crown revenue, Willis told Newshub Nation.
“Coming back to these additional sources of revenue and other areas of savings that will help us finance the tax cut, we must remember that the changes to tobacco legislation have had a significant impact on the accounts from the government – with around $1 billion. .”
Willis said coalition partners Act and New Zealand First were “insisting” on reversing the restrictions.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said the reversal would prevent a hidden tobacco market from emerging and prevent stores from being targets of crime.
“Concentrating cigarette distribution in one store in a small town is going to be a huge draw for crime,” Luxon told Radio New Zealand.
Luxon said his government would continue to reduce smoking rates through education and other anti-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 harmful to Māori, who have higher smoking rates.
“This is a major loss for public health and a huge victory for the tobacco industry – whose profits will be increased at the expense of Kiwi lives,” said Professor Lisa Te Morenga, president of the non-governmental industry group Health Coalition Aotearoa.
Te Morenga pointed to recent modeling that shows the regulations would save $1.3 billion in health system costs over the next 20 years, if fully implemented, and reduce mortality rates by 22% for women and 9% for men.
“Reversing the trend on harmful products that are entrenched in society cannot be done by individuals, or even by communities,” Te Morenga said. “This requires good – and courageous – policies at the population level. »
Leading Māori public health organisation, Hāpai te Hauora, said the reversal would be “catastrophic for Māori communities”.
“This decision suggests a disregard for the voices of communities most affected by tobacco harm – favoring economic interests,” said chief executive Jason Alexander.