Plan to ban smoking among younger people revealed

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Russell Palmer
Wellington, December 9, 2021

New laws will ensure that young people will never legally purchase cigarettes, with the age of a ban on sales rising each year, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall has said.

New Zealand will be the first country in the world to take such a step.

Dr Verrall, who previously worked as an Infectious Diseases Expert, announced the government’s Smokefree 2025 Action Plan after public consultation this year on proposals to meet the government’s goal of making New Zealand Smokefree by 2025.

The Plan noted that about a third of submissions during the consultation (33%) were made by those with a link to the tobacco industry.

Starting Point: Age 14

Dr Verrall said that the sale and supply of cigarettes to people aged 14 would be outlawed from the time the law came into effect, with the age rising each year.

“People aged 14 when the law comes into effect will never be able to legally purchase tobacco. As they age, they and future generations will never be able to purchase tobacco, because the truth is that there is no safe age to start smoking,” she said.

The government plans to have a bill supporting the changes introduced by June 2022, get it passed by December that year and the law will take effect in 2023.

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall announcing the Smokefree 2025 Plan on December 9, 2021 (Screen Grab)

It would mean that anyone born after 2009 would be unable to buy cigarettes in perpetuity, though the exact timing would be set down in the legislation and subject to consultation.

Reducing nicotine levels

Another bill would be introduced in 2022 to allow only very low nicotine levels in smoked tobacco products for manufacture, importation, distribution and sale.

Retailers would also have to be authorised, and the number of retailers who could sell tobacco significantly reduced, with a focus on ensuring sales is not concentrated in deprived areas.

“New laws will mean that only smoked tobacco products containing very low levels of nicotine can be sold, with a significant reduction in the number of shops who can sell them. Vape retailers will also be required to inform the Director-General of Health first. The government will fund a programme aimed at preventing young people from taking up vaping,” Dr Verrall said.

These laws would be supported by a new Smokefree 2025 Taskforce and an increase in the number of Smokefree enforcement officers.

The Focus areas

The Action Plan has six focus areas. They are (1) Ensure Maori leadership and decision-making

(2) Increase health promotion and community mobilisation (3) Increase evidence-based stop smoking services (4) Reduce the addictiveness and appeal of smoked tobacco products (5) Reduce the availability of smoked tobacco products and (6) Ensure that manufacturers, importers and retailers meet their legal obligations

These are aimed at achieving the overall goal of reducing the number of people who smoke daily to 5% of all population groups in New Zealand.

Dr Verrall said that the government is keen to ensure that young people never start smoking, particularly Maori but tax has done all it could to help quit the habit

“We have already seen the full impact of excise tax increases. The government recognises that going further will not help people quit. The proposed changes will save lives and increase Maori life expectancy. We cannot put a price on that,” she said.

Smoking mortality rates

Maori and Pacific people are disproportionately represented in smoking mortality statistics, the Plan noted.

Ministry of Health data show that lung cancer is the leading cause of death among Maori women, and mortality for lung cancer is four times higher than non-Maori women. Lung cancer is also the second-leading cause of death for Maori men.

“By going Smokefree, we could live in a country where our children spend more quality years with their grandparents, with the number of high-risk pregnancies reduced, and strong and healthy babies are born. We will also be in a country in which fewer people are in hospital with smoking-related diseases and people have more money to spend on the things they need and enjoy. Like every doctor, I have hundreds of stories about people who smoke but one stands out,” she said and cited an example.

Dr Verrall said: “Shane was a nurse at the hospital with a wicked sense of humour. He knew that smoking would kill him, especially with his underlying condition. He had every reason in the world to quit but could not because tobacco is one of the most addictive and harmful substances in the world.”

Maori leadership crucial

Maori leadership would be crucial to the success of the Plan, and Covid-19 has shown what could be done when everyone worked together towards one public health goal.

“Communities and Hauora providers have mobilised and made a remarkable difference on the ground and we want to build on that momentum to achieve our Smokefree goal. These changes will save lives and could increase Māori life expectancy and we cannot put a price on that,” she said.

Dr Bloomfield welcomes Taskforce

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield welcomed the government’s plan and said that New Zealand becoming a Smokefree nation was an aspiration of many for many years.

The Taskforce members Dame Tariana Turia, Hone Harawira, Nan Wehipeihana, Donna Matahaere-Atariki and Selah Hart.

“They have deep connections to communities across New Zealand and will make a huge difference in supporting us and holding us to account and making sure we all deliver on this aspiration,” Dr Bloomfield said.

He said that “you can have all the best people, all the best services, all the money and all the preparation but if you do not have strong political leadership in public health, then very little happens. We have been fortunate in this country that at critical times we have had very strong political leadership.”

Transformational change

It was great to see that once again resulting in what would be a transformational change to New Zealand’s approach to tobacco, Dr Bloomfield said.

Dr Verrall said that the vision was of wellbeing, “a vision where we do not have to go into environments and be surrounded by smoke, where our children, our grandchildren don’t have to walk past places and spaces with advertising that screams out to them.”

Read the Ministry’s background on the taskforce members
Russell Palmer is a Digital Political Journalist at Radio New Zealand. The above story and pictures have been published under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz

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