Hipkins lays into govt over repeal of smoking bill

Labour leader Chris Hipkins has cut an incensed and combative figure during an impassioned speech in the House, claiming the government’s repeal of his party’s anti-smoking legislation would mean more New Zealanders would die from smoking.

In his speech, he demanded answers from government MPs as to why they weren’t similarly angry about ditching legislation - introduced by the previous Labour government - that would have created a smokefree generation, with those born after January 2009 being unable to purchase tobacco products.

"The members opposite might be shaking their head about the fact that I’m angry about this," Hipkins declared.

"My question again to them is, ‘Why the hell aren’t you’? Why the hell are you not angry... because this is a bill that will kill people."

Associate Health Minister Casey Costello, who gave the first speech on her bill about midday, battled through heavy heckling and shouting from Labour MPs as she argued the government’s commitment to reducing smoking rates and the Smokefree 2025 goals.

She reiterated comments she made yesterday that she would soon bring her plan to reduce smoking to Cabinet. It was understood she would announce the plan in the coming weeks.

The first reading of the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Amendment Bill began today with the House in urgency as the government pushed to complete the remaining items on its 100-day plan before the March 8 deadline.

Hipkins took the first call on behalf of the Opposition to speak on the bill. He recalled an instance when he was 4 years old when he was allowed a puff from his grandmother’s cigarette, much to the horror of his parents.

He noted how evidence of the harm of smoking wasn’t as well-known in his grandparents’ generation as it was today.

"That was their excuse, my question to the members opposite is simple: what’s your excuse? Because the evidence is now overwhelmingly clear."

"Where is your moral compass?" Hipkins thundered.

His use of "your" caught the attention of assistant Speaker of the House Maureen Pugh. Speeches given in the House are technically directed at the Speaker so any use of "you" or "your" applied to the Speaker.

Pugh interrupted Hipkins to remind him of this, to which Hipkins snapped he had made it clear his comments were actually questions of government MPs and thanked her for "doing the government’s bidding and interrupting my flow".

Pugh didn’t appreciate Hipkins’ comment, making him withdraw it and apologise.

Despite the pause, Hipkins resumed his attacks on the government, calling the bill "morally reprehensible" and a "stain on this Parliament".

He highlighted how 12 people per day died from smoking-related illnesses and he decried the government using revenue from the change to help fund tax cuts.

Hipkins accused Costello of spouting tobacco industry talking points and claimed the government was firmly in the industry’s pocket - an allegation Labour has regularly made regarding the bill.

Costello’s argument relied on how the government was simply reverting to the previous settings used to address smoking rates and pointed out how they had dropped almost 2 per cent to 6.8 per cent in the last year. More than a third of those who’d quit were Māori.

"We know smoking is harmful, everyone knows this... what they need is help to quit," she said.

She remained committed to the Smokefree 2025 goal, which aimed to lower smoking rates below 5 per cent for all population groups by 2025.

Costello branded Labour’s anti-smoking legislation as "untested" and claimed it trivialised the potential impact on retailers. The government alleged the legislation’s aim to reduce the number of tobacco retailers would lead to increased crime for those retailers.

Among the hecklers was Labour MP Peeni Henare, who said at the end of Costello’s speech that it was written by tobacco lobbyists.

"Don’t know any lobbyists," was Costello’s response.