Government ministers are being asked to disclose any links to tobacco companies by public health researchers who claim their rhetoric is strikingly similar to the industry’s key talking points.
The coalition government’s plans to repeal smoke-free law changes and the influence of the industry on those changes again took centre stage in Parliament yesterday.
In a briefing published today by the Public Health Communications Centre, three University of Otago public health academics highlight links between Government MPs and the industry and similarities between their public statements.
The academics said in the interests of transparency, ministers should disclose any past or present dealings with tobacco companies or representatives.
Professor Janet Hoek, the co-director of smoke-free research group Aspire2025, said she and her colleagues were not accusing ministers of a conflict of interest.
“Our call is simply for full transparency. There’s a real opportunity, given that these questions have been raised and that they’re being pursued in Parliament at the moment, for people who have had these connections to be completely open about them, to disclose the nature of them, what kind of relationships they had, what advice, if any, they were receiving, and seeing whether those relationships are still continuing.”
Hoek said there appeared to be no popular support for the Government’s repeal of smoke-free laws, which would have reduced the number of retailers selling tobacco, reduced nicotine levels in cigarettes and banned sales to anyone born after 2009.
Many of the smoke-free measures - especially denicotinisation - were popular among National, Act and NZ First voters, she claimed.
“So if they’re not following the public mandate, then where are they getting the policy advice from? And that’s really the question that we want to ask.”
The briefing paper said the Government was a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The framework’s obligations included only engaging with tobacco companies for regulatory purposes, and recording and disclosing any interactions.
The paper listed the Government’s past and current links to the industry, including two former NZ First staffers, David Broome and Apirana Dawson, who had gone on to work at tobacco giant Philip Morris International.
It also highlighted a series of statements by ministers that echoed the arguments made by the industry.
Luxon’s previous claim that dramatically reducing retailers would make those shops targets for crime closely mirrored statements by Imperial Brands Australasia and British American Tobacco, the paper said.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his ministers were challenged on whether the tobacco industry influenced changes to smokefree laws in Parliament yesterday. Photo / Marty Melville
Under questioning in Parliament on Tuesday, Luxon said he was not aware of any ministers receiving donations from anyone associated with the tobacco industry. He added he expected all ministers would comply with their obligations to report potential conflicts.
The planned repeal of smoke-free measures in New Zealand led to international news headlines and condemnation from the healthcare sector and advocacy groups when it was announced last year. Many critics argued the reason for the move was to help fund the Government’s tax cuts package.
The issue was given new life last week after a Radio New Zealand report said Associate Health Minister Casey Costello had asked for advice on freezing excise tax on tobacco - before denying that she asked for that advice.
Costello confirmed this week that she had sought that advice among other tobacco-related measures. She also said she had given officials NZ First policy documents to inform their work.
Luxon was challenged by Leader of the Opposition Chris Hipkins yesterday on whether tobacco industry representatives were involved in developing these policy documents.
The Prime Minister said he was not responsible for other parties’ manifestos.
“What I think is fantastic is we have an Associate Minister with delegation for reducing smoking,” Luxon said. “She’s incredibly focused on that goal, and she’s asked her officials for a range of advice to actually lower smoking in New Zealand. That’s a good thing.”
Associate Health Minister Casey Costello confirmed she had asked officials for advice on freezing tobacco excise. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Costello said in Parliament yesterday she was committed to the goal of reducing smoking rates to 5 per cent by next year.
She and other ministers highlighted the Government was already on track to meet this target without additional smoke-free measures, such as reducing retailers.
Ministry of Health data published in December showed that 6.8 per cent of New Zealand adults were daily smokers, down from 8.6 per cent the previous year.
Isaac Davison is an Auckland-based reporter who covers health issues. He joined the Herald in 2008 and has previously covered the environment, politics, and social issues.
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