Deals made in smoke-filled rooms

The government’s determination to bulldoze through legislation repealing New Zealand’s world-leading anti-smoking measures under urgency is the latest foolishness in this saga.

Why the National Party, which did not campaign on this, allowed its lust for power to run with the extreme views of its coalition partners on this beggars belief.

It is an issue which has dogged it almost from the moment the ink was dry on the coalition agreement.

When it was revealed repealing the law would free up money for the controversial tax cuts, it was hard for the government to escape the view it was cynically trading in misery.

Health Minister Shane Reti, who came into the role with considerable mana as a Māori general practitioner, has not been convincing on this.

National’s passing the buck to newbie New Zealand First MP Casey Costello in her role as associate health minister was a gutless move which has seen the issue remain in the headlines, partly because of her inexperience.

In the wake of widespread condemnation of the planned moves to remove the measures yet to be introduced under the law passed in 2022 (registering tobacco sellers and reducing the number of outlets, lowering the nicotine levels in tobacco products and making buying tobacco illegal for those born after January 1, 2009) there was opportunity for the coalition to have a rethink.

This week RNZ revealed Ministry of Health officials came up with some less drastic measures which would not have pleased all the opponents of the repeal plan, but if adopted might have indicated the government had been paying some attention and was prepared to compromise.

Among the suggestions, we understand, was introducing denicotinisation of cigarettes but not as drastically as in the 2022 legislation.

Denicotinisation was something Dr Reti, speaking before the election, considered should have been introduced before moving to reduce the number of outlets.

Smokefree laws are being stubbed out. Photo: Getty Images
Smokefree laws are being stubbed out. Photo: Getty Images
But no, Ms Costello was not having that.

Nor was she prepared to consider continuing plans with limits on the number of retailers but increasing the number of them beyond the planned 600, or introducing a sinking lid policy which would see them reduce over time.

Stopping sales near schools and raising the age at which tobacco could be bought to 25 also did not find favour with her.

She says the government will "implement systems that target addicted smokers not generalised virtue-signalling approaches that are unproven" but we are yet to hear what these are.

If the government is so convinced it is right on this, it is hard to understand why it has not been shouting about these "systems" from the rooftops for months now.

The government is not helping the perception that its policies are free from the influence of Big Tobacco by continuing to trot out the same old bogeyman of the black market running amok if the 2022 measures proceed.

As we have previously pointed out, that line was rubbish when now government minister Chris Bishop used it more than a decade ago to scaremonger about the introduction of plain packaging in his then job with Philip Morris International.

Playing fast and loose with the facts has been a feature of the government’s arguments. Soon after the election, we were told repeatedly that under the 2022 law there would be one tobacco outlet in Northland when the figure, which was readily available, was 35.

Concerns about a possible increase in ram-raids also seem fanciful. Researchers using police data have shown the number of ram-raids has been falling since 2022 and that tobacco is not commonly stolen in such attacks.

It is incomprehensible the government considers it preferable to mindlessly regurgitate the arguments of Big Tobacco rather than pay attention to valid research, thousands of medical professionals who deal with the reality of tobacco harm every day, and Māori and Pasifika leaders desperate to see their people live longer and healthier.