Labour’s health spokeswoman Dr Ayesha Verrall has let rip at the Government over plans to scrap world-leading smoking regulations, accusing it of putting the interests of tobacco lobbyists over the health of New Zealanders.
Speaking in her first press conference in Opposition, Verrall, the former Health Minister who brought in the legislation at the end of 2022, has also suggested questions need to be asked about the influence of the tobacco industry.
Te Pāti Māori, which was behind the original Smokefree 2025 goal set with National in 2011, has accused the new Government of sacrificing Māori lives to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, given the changes would see tobacco tax revenue of $1 billion retained over the forecast period.
The new law would have dramatically reduced the number outlets selling tobacco products (from July next year), created a “smokefree generation” by banning people born after 2009 from ever buying tobacco (from 2027) and dramatically reduced nicotine levels (from April 2025) - the latter two both world-first initiatives.
The law was part of the country’s aim to reduce the number of smokers to 5 per cent of the population overall by 2025 - a target first set by a National-led government in 2011.
As part of its coalition deal with Act and NZ First, National has agreed to repeal Labour’s legislation before March next year. NZ First had campaigned on scrapping the laws, while Act had included the tobacco tax revenue gains in its Alternative Budget.
Finance Minister Nicola Willis has acknowledged money saved by the scrapping of the smokefree laws will be used to help fund tax cuts.
Labour health spokeswoman Dr Ayesha Verrall is accusing the Government of pandering to interests of tobacco lobbyists in reversing smokefree laws. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National voted against the legislation at the time but said it did support introducing some measures over time, such as denicotinisation.
In defending its decision to reverse the law, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon this week said the policy would be confusing to implement and argued it would lead to an increase in the illicit market, fuelling gangs and crime.
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Verrall said these were “talking points” of the tobacco industry.
“One of the most disappointing things about this whole sorry situation is seeing National Party ministers spout tobacco industry talking points that ... smokefree changes would lead to an increase in the black market.
“When we introduced plain packaging, that never happened. There have also been New Zealand academics showing that the black market is very small in New Zealand.
“When the National Party did not campaign on this and now is introducing changes that will see more people smoking, we really do have to wonder what’s going on.”
While the regulatory impact statement (RIS) on the law change does acknowledge the illicit market could grow as a result, public health experts say there is little evidence to support it and surveys from the industry itself show the size is shrinking.
In submissions on the legislation last year, British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands Australasia both argued there was already a growing illicit tobacco market in New Zealand and this would be exacerbated by new regulations.
British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands Australasia respectively make up about 60 and 30 per cent of the New Zealand tobacco market, worth nearly $3b in 2021 (for comparison, New Zealanders spend about $5b a year on alcohol).
Surveys commissioned by the industry showed while the proportion of tobacco smoked sourced through the black market has increased - from 11.5 per cent in 2019 to 12.1 per cent in 2022 - total illicit tobacco consumption had decreased by 27 per cent from 230 tonnes to 167 tonnes.
Act leader David Seymour, National leader and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo / Mark Mitchell
A report released last month by the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health said there was evidence of a “downward trend in illicit trade in tobacco in NZ”.
It estimated the black market to be 8.4 per cent - about 143 million cigarettes in 2022 - of the total market, qualified, however, by “a high degree of imprecision”.
“Historically, there is little evidence that significant increases in the illicit tobacco trade in NZ have taken place in response to past tobacco control measures, despite claims from the tobacco industry and other interested parties this would occur,” the report says.
“For example, in 2019 the proportion of illicit tobacco was higher compared with other years, but this deviation in trend did not follow major increases in taxation on tobacco nor other new tobacco control policies.”
Verrall also accused new Health Minister Dr Shane Reti of “having it both ways”, having supported some of the measures such as denicotinisation and smokefree targets previously.
“This change cannot be justified from a health perspective at all. We will see more people suffer, more people sick [and] clogging up our hospitals and more health costs down the line.
“There is screeds of evidence from around the world about how the tobacco industry tries to influence politicians to get the changes they want.”
About 5000 New Zealanders die every year from a smoking-related illness, says the RIS on the law change, with disproportionate impacts on Māori and Pasifika peoples.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbe Ngarewa-Packer said the Government was putting tobacco industry profits before Māori lives.
“They are relying on addiction to fuel tax cuts for their rich mates. It’s vile.
“Māori die seven years earlier on average than Pākehā, and smoking is our leading cause of preventable death. By doing this while also promising to dismantle the Māori Health Authority, this Government is digging our people an early grave.”
Reti told the Herald the Government was still committed to “improving” smoking rates in New Zealand, and their belief was vaping would be the “primary mechanism” to achieve that.
Asked about previous support for denicotinisation, Reti deferred and said they would be looking at briefings and advice from officials before deciding on any other “tools”.
Reti has also previously raised concerns about the commercial impacts on retailers, along with potential for increased crime.
The smokefree laws were designed to accelerate the decline in New Zealand smoking rates, which had started to plateau in recent years, and continue towards the aspirational goal of reducing smoking rates overall below 5 per cent by 2025.
Without the new policies, daily smoking rates were estimated to only reduce to 8.1 per cent of non-Māori and 20 per cent for Māori by 2025. Māori were not projected to reach the 5 per cent target until 2061.
Given the implementation timeline, it is highly unlikely the new policies would have seen the country achieve the 5 per cent target. Modelling (commissioned by the Ministry of Health and carried out by the University of Melbourne) showed low-nicotine cigarettes would cut the daily smoking rate among Māori women aged 20 and over from 37.3 per cent in 2023 to 10.1 per cent in 2025, and to 1.3 per cent in 2030.
For non-Māori, it would fall below 5 per cent by 2025, which is the stated goal of Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 (though for all population groups).
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