No logical reason given to repeal smokefree laws

Why the wait to reduce tobacco sales premises, Janet Hoek asks.

Government spokespeople have failed to provide evidence or logic to justify their proposed repeal of world-leading smokefree legislation. Instead, they have claimed that reducing retailer numbers from about 6000 to 600 would greatly increase crime, particularly ram-raids targeting tobacco products — a claim based on anecdote.

Examination of police data on ram-raids suggests these crimes are decreasing and that only a minority target tobacco products. In fact, reducing tobacco retail outlets and ‘‘denicotinisation’’ would very likely lead to further decreases in ram-raid crimes.

Tobacco companies have strongly resisted the proposal to reduce the number of retail outlets. For example, they funded retailers to prepare a petition, presented on Parliament’s steps to Minister of Internal Affairs Brooke van Velden, and a social media campaign that opposed plans to reduce outlet numbers. Our analysis of the campaign found it substituted logical fallacies and scaremongering for logic and evidence.

Nonetheless, when pressed to explain the decision to repeal the smokefree legislation, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon drew on tobacco companies’ reasoning and argued the legislation had some ‘‘practical issues’’. Specifically, he claimed that implementing a retail reduction strategy would see ram-raids increase.

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti, who has overall responsibility for tobacco policy, also struggled to justify repealing the retail reduction policy.

Data informing the questions Luxon and Reti were asked does exist. This shows that ram-raid crimes, which the police have tracked over the last six years, are trending downwards; they also show that most ram-raids do not target tobacco products. Luxon and Reti need to explain why they propose acting in a way inconsistent with police data.

Greater in-store security and external barriers, such as bollards, have likely made ram-raids more difficult; where ram-raids did still occur, improved security has likely reduced the value of items stolen.

Police data also includes a scanning report on 283 ram-raids between November 2020 and October 2021, which showed that money and the cash till were the most frequently stolen items in ram-raids. Three quarters of ram-raids during this period did not involve tobacco products. In summary, analysis of data rather than anecdote shows ram-raids are decreasing and that most involve theft of products other than tobacco. There are also compelling logical reasons why implementing the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act measures would decrease ram-raids.

First, the legislation requires retailers to go through an approval process before they are eligible to become a smoked tobacco retailer. Among other criteria set, the approval process the Ministry of Health established requires retailers to provide evidence of their store security. Specifically, it seeks details on product storage, security cameras, alarm and fog systems and external barriers, such as bollards. These measures would ensure all smoked tobacco retailers had highly secure premises for the nine-month period when tobacco products with current nicotine content would still be available.

Second, in April 2025, smoked tobacco retailers would only have been able to sell products that met the new substantially reduced nicotine standard. Reduced nicotine products are much less appealing to people who smoke, which makes it highly unlikely to create a large black market.

Finally, as tobacco becomes less available and less addictive, many people will try to quit or move to alternative nicotine products, such as vapes. Our studies of people who smoke show many regret smoking, have tried to quit and want to be smoke-free. Robust modelling also predicts that smoking prevalence is likely to fall dramatically after ‘‘denicotinisation’’. As the pool of people who smoke decreases, the market for stolen cigarettes will also reduce.

Luxon and Reti have failed to provide any evidence that reducing retailer numbers would see ram-raids increase and have resorted to ‘‘arguments’’ seeded and propagated by tobacco companies. In fact, the data is clear: reducing the number of outlets selling tobacco, requiring these to meet higher security standards and introducing ‘‘denicotinisation’’ would reduce ram-raids, enhance public safety and boost population wellbeing.

Why, or for whom, are they waiting? — Newsroom.


 Janet Hoek is a professor of public health at the University of Otago.