Scrapping world-leading smokefree legislation will most directly harm Māori, whose mortality rates were modelled to be significantly slashed, experts say.
National Māori public health organisation Hāpai Te Hauora calls on the new government to reconsider repealing the critical Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act 2022 – an “unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders”.
The new coalition government plans to scrap legislation that included denicotisation of cigarettes, a reduction in retailers and banning cigarettes for the next generation. (Denicotisation means mandating a maximum nicotine content for all cigarettes sold in New Zealand to make them minimally addictive.)
Research released in July 2022 found the legislation could mean the death gap, for those aged 45 and older, was reduced by a staggering 22.9% for Māori females compared to non-Māori females, and a still very large 9.6% for males.
“I don’t know where they’re getting their advice from,” Hāpai Te Hauora interim chief executive officer Jason Alexander says of the decision.
A further insult to tangata whenua
It comes after Health Coalition Aotearoa co-chair Professor Lisa Te Morenga said the move would cost the lives of thousands of Māori a year, who had the highest rates of smoking (19%).
“It’s a further insult to our tangata whenua by the newly formed coalition Government on top of the loss of Te Aka Whai Ora – the Māori Health Authority.”
Alexander said the decision had generated calls by public health experts, the communities most affected by tobacco harm and the tobacco control sector to ensure the commitment remains for Aotearoa to achieve Smokefree2025.
The National Party’s pre-election commitment promised to improve outcomes for Māori, but the coalition agreements showed otherwise, Alexander said.
“This action disregards these community voices in order to raise revenue to pay for tax cuts for Aotearoa’s most wealthy.
“Rescinding denicotinisation requirements in tobacco and reducing the constraints on retail outlets, seemingly favour economic interests over the lives of whānau.”
‘Huge jump back in time’
Māori smokers – most of whom did not want to smoke, and certainly did not want their children and grandchildren smoking – “desperately need” the legislation to continue.
“It just feels like a huge jump back in time.
“We need some world-leading legislation like what we had on the cards before this new government came in.”
He disputed Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s claim that the legislation would not work.
Aotearoa was held up internationally as an example of truly innovative public policy for its pioneering efforts in tobacco control, setting a precedent for evidence-based policies that protect public health, Alexander said.
The proposed rollbacks undermined that legacy and the hard-won progress in reducing smoking rates.
‘A great injustice’
“Whenever you do something new and innovative for the first time, you are pioneering. We’re creating our own evidence.
“We need to try, because these 5000 [Māori lives] we’re losing each year are worth it.”
Hāpai Te Hauora would continue to elevate the voices of Māori and communities who want to break free from tobacco harm.
“If the repeal of these advancements in tobacco control is followed through, a great injustice will be perpetrated through shameful ignorance of clear and conclusive evidence.”
When asked after being sworn in whether it was disingenuous to use repealing smokefree legislation to pay for tax cuts when it had not campaigned on it, Luxon disagreed, saying there were “a number of issues as three parties”.
“Certainly, it’s fair to say New Zealand First and ACT had some issues around distribution of products.”
Tobacco sales being concentrated to fewer retailers would “drive to higher levels of crime and ram raids”.
“Equally, you know, the opportunity for a black market to emerge, will be largely untaxed, and then some of the age generation stuff was actually quite difficult... how do you determine a 36-year-old can smoke and a 35-year-old can’t?”
The new government would continue to “drive for” lowering smoking rates, he said.
“The dispute is the fact that actually what the government proposed and passed just before the election, so it hasn’t actually been fully implemented, was there were component parts of that policy that actually we disagree with.”
It would continue with good education, encourage people to take up vapes as a cessation tool and “make sure that we protect vapes [from] under 18s”.
Anyone aged 14 or under won’t ever be able to legally buy tobacco in New Zealand when a new law takes effect under the Government’s smokefree plan. (First published December 9, 2021.)
This is a Public Interest Journalism funded role through NZ On Air