Smokers to the rescue

Almost before the ink was dry on the coalition agreement between National, Act New Zealand and New Zealand First, public health advocates were worried.

Perusal of the agreements reached soon revealed one of the early actions of the new government will be repealing smokefree legislation passed at the end of last year by next March.

This will stop the reduction in retail outlets where tobacco can be sold and get rid of requirements for reducing nicotine in tobacco products and stopping those born on or after January 1, 2009 from legally buying tobacco.

Under the law as it stands now, from July up to 600 approved retailers would be able to sell smoked tobacco. Sales would be restricted to reduced nicotine products by the beginning of April 2025.

But none of that will happen under the new government.

Instead, the around 6000 outlets for tobacco will continue to sell a highly addictive product which kills two-thirds of its long-term users.

But wait, there’s more. This move will help fill the shortfall in funding for National’s tax cuts plan after New Zealand First dug its toes in over relaxing rules on foreign home buyers. National had expected to raise $740 million a year from a tax on foreign buyers, although it steadfastly refused to show the detailed workings for it and its estimates of the income were largely dismissed as la-la land economics.

Incoming finance minister Nicola Willis told Newshub Nation its coalition partners insisted the smoke-free legislation be reversed and that reversal would free up about a billion dollars.

This cynical and face-saving move has understandably invoked the ire of public health advocates particularly concerned about the impact on Māori who have higher smoking rates and therefore higher rates of death from it than the rest of the population.

The measures introduced by Labour were controversial. No surprises there. Big Tobacco and its friends have scaremongered about every move to reduce the harm caused by their poisonous products.

It is worth remembering it was a little more than a decade ago that one of National’s coalition negotiating team Chris Bishop, in his then job with Philip Morris International was warning about the terrible consequences of plans for plain packaging of tobacco including fears about the black market. Ironically, that legislation, which took years to reach fruition, was introduced to Parliament under a National-led government and research shows Mr Bishop’s concern then about the illicit market did not eventuate.

Earlier this year Big Tobacco involvement was revealed in a campaign supposedly designed to save dairies from extinction. It looked like the campaign was instigated by store owners, but the website promoting it had been funded by tobacco companies and strangely, the dairy owner who was supposed to be fronting the campaign could not be interviewed because he reserved his right to privacy.

Public health advocates may feel more positive about reference in the coalition documents to reforming the regulation of vaping, smokeless tobacco and oral nicotine products, banning disposable vaping products and increasing penalties for illegal sales to those under 18.

However, the details have not been spelled out, and we wonder what tactics we might expect over this from Big Tobacco, which is deeply embedded in the vaping industry, and how well they might be resisted by the new government.

At the same time New Zealand is planning to drop the so-called generation smoking ban, the United Kingdom is trying to introduce one, and there is much controversy about it.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is undeterred by New Zealand’s backtracking and determined to proceed with the policy which it is hoped will prevent tens of thousands of deaths and save the National Health Service billions of pounds.

Given the incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon’s constant refrain about the new government’s focus on outcomes, we wonder what outcome for the health of the population is expected from the roll-back of our smoke-free measures.