Benefits of world-leading smoking legislation ignored

The editorial ( ODT, 2.12.22) and subsequent comments from the Dairy and Business Owners Group criticised measures proposed in the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Bill.

Unfortunately, the ODT paid no attention to the profound health, social and economic benefits this world-leading legislation would bring to all peoples in New Zealand.

In particular, the legislation would significantly reduce the burden of death and illness smoking imposes on many sectors of our communities. We congratulate Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall on her far-sighted leadership in introducing the legislation.

Both the ODT and Dairy and Business Owners Group mistakenly assume tobacco is a normal consumer product.

In fact, tobacco is the only product that will kill two-thirds of its long-term users.

If there is any anomaly, it is not that tobacco should face special regulation, but rather that the new policies to stop this highly addictive and deadly product from being sold throughout our communities have taken so long to be introduced.

The ODT erroneously suggested that "many have serious reservations about the planned changes", though later concludes "most are on board".

Large surveys that the Aspire Research Centre conducted with people who smoke revealed consistently strong support for denicotinisation and the smokefree generation, and majority support among people who had recently quit for reductions in tobacco retail outlets.

Not surprisingly, given the deep regret many people who smoke feel, most are indeed "on board" with the Bill’s proposals.

Claims that the smokefree generation measure would "effectively criminalise" tobacco use among young people and limit their rights are incorrect as the law would not criminalise tobacco users.

Furthermore, our work with young people found most strongly supported the smokefree generation policy as it would protect (not reduce) their freedom by reducing the risk they became addicted to smoking.

The ODT privileges young people’s freedom to become addicted over their right to be free from an addiction that blights the lives of many who unwittingly experiment with smoking only to find they cannot stop.

Our research with young people who smoke shows they rarely, if ever, understand how addictive smoking is when they first experiment with cigarettes and almost never make a truly informed choice to smoke.

The ODT argues that reducing the number of outlets selling tobacco will "curb the rights" of retailers and pose a "drastic threat" to their livelihoods.

However, the real question the ODT should ask is what gives retailers the right to sell a toxic product that kills their customers and communities?

Nearly 5000 people die every year of a disease caused by smoking; that is almost one person per retail outlet selling tobacco products.

How many other retailers do we believe should have the right to kill one customer per year, if that is what they require to remain viable?

The Smokefree 2025 goal was set in 2011, more than a decade ago.

Since then smoking prevalence and tobacco sales have declined dramatically.

Retailers cannot claim to have had no sign of successive governments’ commitment to minimising tobacco use.

The process for weaning themselves off a low-profit product that is typically a single-item purchase should have begun long ago.

Challenges dairy owners may face from rising crime could be addressed if they no longer sold tobacco.

Unfortunately, tobacco now poses risks to users and sellers; the retail reduction measure will benefit both groups.

The ODT also claims illicit trade will increase and suggests the Bill amounts to prohibition, but provides no evidence or logic to support these incorrect claims.

In fact, the Bill prohibits neither tobacco nor smoking nor nicotine use; nicotine remains widely available in approved treatments (nicotine replacement therapies) and via vaping products.

Work we have recently completed analysing discarded tobacco packages found the proportion of foreign packs has remained stable over the last decade, despite tobacco companies’ claims rising tobacco excise taxes and plain packaging would see the illicit market explode.

Interviews with people who smoke found only a small proportion reported having used illegally imported or stolen tobacco.

While most have tried home-grown tobacco, their descriptions of this product as "foul" and "feral" suggest it does not present an appealing long-term alternative.

Despite the troubling errors in logic and fact presented in the ODT editorial, we are pleased to support their call for greater attention to vaping.

While it is important people who smoke have alternative nicotine sources, current regulations have not balanced the needs of these people and the rights of young people to be free from addiction.

We hope Dr Verrall will show the same leadership in addressing this serious public health problem.


Janet Hoek, Andrew Waa and Richard Edwards co-direct the Aspire Research Centre at the University of Otago.