New Zealand’s new Conservative coalition government is doing a U-turn on anti-smoking legislation.
The legislation, introduced by previous Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern and passed in 2022, has been described as a suite of “world-leading, absolutely excellent health measures,” by Prof Richard Edwards, a tobacco control researcher and public health expert at the University of Otago. Under it, anyone born after January 2009 would have been prevented from ever buying tobacco by a ban, and the number of smoking outlets would have been reduced and restricted by neighbourhood.
But now, the new Conservative PM Christopher Luxon is bowing to pressure from his right-wing coalition partners, who want to claw back the taxes that would have been lost in lost tobacco sales under the legislation – in order to fund tax cuts.
Tax cuts above health
The southwestern Pacific nation’s new finance minister, Nicola Willis, said the anti-smoking law would be scrapped before March 2024, and that the additional revenue from cigarette sales would fund the coalition’s tax cuts.
Some commentators are saying National’s new far right coalition partner, New Zealand First, effectively forced a choice between the health of New Zealand’s younger generation and a public coalition spat over foreign buyers investing in the property market – something the government appears not to have the appetite for.
What it does have the appetite for is the 5,000 preventable tobacco-related deaths per year that, according to health experts, could have been saved in younger generations under the new law.
Tobacco = a magnet for crime?
Still the government has insisted they needed to “fund tax reduction”. They will also need to fund the education and “other smoking policies” that PM Luxon has promised instead of the ban. He has also indicated there has been a rethink about how restricting sales outlets could have an unintended consequences.
“Concentrating the distribution of cigarettes in one store in one small town is going to be a massive magnet for crime,” he said, speaking to Radio New Zealand.
Critics amassed to criticise the policy reversal. Country-wide Māori health group, Hāpai Te Hauora, said abandoning the new law was an “unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders”. New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population, are disproportionately represented in smoking rate data and among tobacco-related deaths.
‘Put our People over Profit – Stop the Repeal of the Smokefree Legislation!’— Hāpai Te Hauora (@hapaitehauora) November 27, 2023
We urgently call on the Government to stop the repeal of the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act.
Sign and share the petition!!https://t.co/bpmcvcT4PJ pic.twitter.com/TUlIHjRoUw
“The government is flying in the face of public opinion and obviously in the face of the vast majority of people who work in this field, health professionals, doctors, nurses,” said Prof Edwards.