'Shameful' bill to repeal anti-smoking law hits House

Photo: RNZ
The bill to repeal Labour's anti-smoking legislation has now been introduced in the House. File photo: RNZ

Data disproves the government's claims that reducing the number of tobacco retailers would lead to an increase in ram raids, according to a public health professor.

The coalition government plans to repeal smokefree legislation that would slash the number of tobacco retailers from 6000 to 600, take 95 percent of the nicotine out of cigarettes and ban sales to anyone born after 2009.

In documents obtained by RNZ, the Health Ministry urged the associate health minister to keep elements of the current law and suggested compromises, but the minister rejected them.

On Tuesday morning, the prime minister doubled down on his claim that reducing the number of tobacco outlets would increase the black market and dairy crime, despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

University of Otago public health professor Janet Hoek told Checkpoint there had been concerns government ministers were not following research evidence when looking at the effect of the smokefree legislation.

"So what we did was to look at what they've said and whether the comments had any kind of supporting evidence," Prof Hoek said.

"We looked at police data on ram raids and found that rather than increasing, these have actually been declining sharply since 2022," she said. "The decline started in 2022 and it's continued since then. So the trend is downwards since 2022.

"Now, I think that's not only inconsistent with statements that Mr Luxon made, it's actually not a matter of disagreement, which is what he kept coming back to in his interview this morning. We're actually not talking about disagreement. We're talking about a matter of fact and the facts show that ram raids are decreasing, not increasing."

Luxon's comments appeared to suggest he was not well acquainted with that data, Prof Hoek said.

"And he could also find, as we found, an analysis that the police had undertaken of 283 ram raids.

"They looked at the most commonly stolen items. The most commonly stolen items were not tobacco, they were cash and cash registers.

"In fact, three quarters of the ram raids that were reviewed in this period didn't involve tobacco products."

Logically, the theft of any product would only be appealing if there was a large enough market for it in the first place, Prof Hoek said.

"What the smokefree legislation aimed to do was to bring about really rapid reductions in smoking prevalence. So of course, when you've got fewer people smoking, then the market for any kind of stolen or illegally imported tobacco is going to drop.

"And if the market isn't big enough, then the incentive to try and supply that market is just going to disappear.

"They're flying in the face of evidence, of logic, of public opinion."

PM and associate minister stand by comments

Earlier on Tuesday, the prime minister stood by his position that introducing a tougher smokefree law would create a larger tobacco black market.

Officials also argued, in their advice to ministers, that any claim the black market would expand under stronger restrictions is "a common tobacco industry tactic".

Luxon said he understood there were different views but disagreed with that evidence.

He said the current smoking legislation worked and had halved smoking rates in 10 years.

RNZ has obtained documents that show officials advised the associate health minister that the illegal sale of tobacco is decreasing.

Officials also offered compromise positions including a purchase age of 25, a higher cap on store numbers and less drastic cuts to nicotine levels.

Associate Health Minister Casey Costello said it was common for ministers not to accept advice from officials - and she remained committed to meeting New Zealand's smokefree goals.

"I'm still seeking advice, there was a document report given to me, we're continuing to discuss those recommendations and we'll continue until we get some really good outcomes to achieve our smokefree targets."

Costello said raising the purchase age to 25 would have been difficult to enforce.

Hoek said the government needed to go back and review who supported the changes.

"They need to go back and talk with Māori leaders, they need to look at smoking prevalence among Māori, which is 17 percent from the latest New Zealand Health Survey, and they need to look at the very strong support that Māori leaders gave to the measures that they are repealing."