The recently elected government of New Zealand plans to abolish the nation’s highly praised legislation that prohibits smoking in order to fund tax reductions. This decision is expected to have a detrimental impact on public health, resulting in numerous fatalities and being particularly devastating for the Māori population.
In 2022, a groundbreaking law was enacted in the country that implemented a gradual increase in the legal smoking age. This measure aimed to prevent individuals born after January 2009 from ever being able to purchase cigarettes legally. The legislation was created to reduce the number of smoking-related deaths and save the healthcare system billions of dollars.
The law, believed to have influenced the UK’s decision to gradually eliminate smoking for future generations, included various measures to discourage and limit access to smoking. These measures included significantly decreasing the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, restricting their sale to specialized tobacco stores, and reducing the number of stores permitted to sell cigarettes from 6,000 to just 600 across the country.
The legislation was set to take effect in July 2024. However, as a result of their coalition deal with the New Zealand First party, the National party has promised to revoke the changes, which include eliminating the need for de-nicotisation, removing restrictions on retail locations, and lifting the ban on production.
On Saturday, the recently appointed finance minister, Nicola Willis, announced that the policies will be eliminated by March 2024. The income from cigarette sales will be allocated towards the coalition’s tax cuts. The National party has had to generate alternative methods to finance their tax strategy after their coalition member, New Zealand First, declined a suggestion to allow foreign buyers to reenter the real estate market.
The pre-election financial report from the Treasury stated that limiting the amount of stores allowed to sell tobacco and implementing stricter regulations would greatly decrease the government’s earnings. Willis shared this information with Newshub Nation.
“Regarding additional sources of income and potential cost-cutting measures that will enable us to finance the tax cuts, it is important to note that the revisions to the smoke-free laws had a notable effect on the Government’s finances, resulting in approximately $1 billion.”
According to Willis, Act and New Zealand First, as coalition partners, were determined to lift the restrictions.
The Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon, stated that the reversal would prevent the emergence of a black market for tobacco and halt the targeting of shops for criminal activity.
According to Luxon, having all cigarettes sold in one store in a small town will attract a significant amount of criminal activity. This statement was made during an interview with Radio New Zealand.
Luxon stated that his administration will persist in reducing smoking rates by means of education and implementing additional policies regarding smoking.
However, the change in policy has caused surprise among public health professionals who believe that it may result in the loss of 5,000 lives annually and disproportionately affect Māori individuals who have a higher prevalence of smoking.
Professor Lisa Te Morenga, chair of the non-government organization Health Coalition Aotearoa, expressed disappointment in the decision as it will have a negative impact on public health, while also benefiting the tobacco industry and potentially jeopardizing the lives of New Zealanders.
According to Te Morenga, recent modeling has demonstrated that if the regulations are fully enforced, they would result in a cost savings of $1.3 billion in the healthcare system over the next two decades. Additionally, they would also decrease mortality rates by 22% for women and 9% for men.
According to Te Morenga, it is not possible for individuals or even communities to reverse the impact of harmful products that are deeply ingrained in society. Instead, enacting strong and courageous policies at a population level is necessary.
The primary Māori public health group, Hāpai te Hauora, expressed that the change will have a devastating impact on Māori communities.
Jason Alexander, the chief executive, stated that this action displays a lack of consideration for the opinions of the communities most impacted by the negative effects of tobacco, instead prioritizing economic gain.