Reading the smoke signals

After almost two weeks of criticism, the government will be willing opposition to its stand on reversing smoke-free plans to dissipate like a vape cloud.

If it has been surprised at the sustained attack it has been under from members of the medical profession in a variety of specialties, Māori leaders and others appalled by this action, it shows how out of touch those who pushed for the rollback are.

Seeing the planned reversal of moves considered world-leading hitting headlines internationally has been embarrassing for those who were proud of the legislation passed last December with the aim of reducing our smoking rate to 5% or less.

It cannot be much fun for Finance Minister Nicola Willis and Minister of Health Shane Reti to be referred to as Nicotine Willis and Shane Cigareti either.

It has been uncomfortable observing Dr Reti, a Māori general practitioner, swallowing a series of dead rats on this issue due to the coalition agreements with Act New Zealand and New Zealand First.

National voted against the smoke-free legislation measures last year, but it was only in August Dr Reti told a political health forum National mostly agreed with "the tools put on the table" in the new law. However, it disagreed with the implementation plan.

It wanted denicotinisation of tobacco introduced first, something he considered could render unnecessary the other proposals such as reducing the number of outlets and outlawing the selling of tobacco to those born after January 1, 2009.

Enthusiasm for that approach appears to have gone up in smoke in the coalition talks and now the big concerns the government is airing are the risks of the black market and the ram-raiding of tobacco outlets, arguments trotted out by Big Tobacco over many years in response to any restriction.

Minister of Health Shane Reti. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
Minister of Health Shane Reti. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
But hang on, these issues are surely law and order ones. What a great opportunity for all three parties to show how they would walk the big talk they made during the election campaign about restoring law and order which they insisted had gone to hell in a handcart under Labour.

Dr Reti, at the August forum, made a big deal of pointing out the first policy he had announced in October 2022 had been to extend the age range for breast screening.

By making that the first policy announcement, he said it sent three signals about things that would matter to him as a health minister — preventative care, cancer, and women’s health.

It is hard to see how the roll-back of the smoke-free legislation fits with that, given tobacco smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in New Zealand.

The government’s handling of the controversy over this has been sloppy and unconvincing. It is not enough to keep saying you are deeply committed to doing something, whether it be lowering smoking rates, or reaching net carbon zero by 2050, without specifying how that commitment is going to manifest itself.

The repeating of the erroneous mantra there would be one tobacco outlet in Northland by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and leader of the House Chris Bishop made both look ridiculous.

Blaming it on poor fact-checking by staff did not cut the mustard. Did neither of them stop to think it sounded extreme or do they blithely spout whatever their spin doctors put before them? Reporters could have been quicker off the mark to expose this error/fib too.

The list showing there would be 35 outlets allocated to Northland had been up on the Ministry of Health’s website since September 15, so it was not difficult to find the information.

The government has a choice about what to do next. It can continue to brazen it out and hope the issue will eventually die along with many of the smokers it is using as a cash cow to help fund tax cuts or do the mature and responsible thing of admitting it has got this wrong and change tack.