When it comes to taxing cigarettes, there’s rarely any opposition from lawmakers. “Sin taxes,” as they’re sometimes called, raise significant revenue for governments and are broadly deployed in the name of reducing rates of smoking—in the US, they’re particularly high in states like New York and Connecticut. But rarely is the effect of these taxes studied on marginalized people with low incomes, who around the world smoke at the highest rates.
A study analyzing online media accounts of tobacco-related store robberies in New Zealand between 2009 and 2018 gives an idea of which communities the government is impacting the most by hiking cigarette prices year after year. The harms have been disproportionately aimed at the country’s Indigenous people.
“My concerns increased when I saw it was mainly Māori and Pacific Island males being implicated in the robberies, charged and imprisoned,” co-author Dr. Marewa Glover, the director of the Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking, told Filter. Glover, who is Māori, has previously published research into the disproportionately high smoking rates among Indigenous peoples around the world, and the failure of most governments to track such rates.
“Was this another negative consequence of tobacco control policies that would disproportionately impact Māori and low-income groups?” she asked.
In 2016, the cost of an average pack from a major brand in New Zealand cost the equivalent of around $15 USD. Today, following a series of tax hikes including a 10 percent rise in January 2020, it’s above $22.50 USD—close to double the country’s hourly minimum wage.
Simultaneously, New Zealand’s government has been limiting access to tobacco products that were comparatively cheaper. In 2014, it reduced the duty-free allowance from 200 cigarettes to 50, ended the gift concession (the amount of tobacco that can be shipped from overseas tax-free, or allowed into the country as a gift) and decreased the allowance for growing tobacco for personal use.
“The very high price was already causing problems for low-income groups. Then the robberies took off.”
These factors have combined to create a lucrative and increasingly dangerous illicit cigarette market.
“The very high price of tobacco was already causing financial problems for low-income groups,” Glover said. “Then the robberies took off.”
The study recorded reports of 572 tobacco-related robberies in New Zealand from 2009 to 2018, but unevenly distributed, with a surge in 2016 and 2017. The authors could not definitively establish if the increase was caused by the rise in tobacco prices—but they did establish that robbery rates were significantly higher in neighborhoods where the government has underinvested, and which include Māori and Pacific Islander communities. Because smoking prevalence is higher in lower-income neighborhoods, those often contain more tobacco retail outlets.
The majority of the robberies occurred at dairies (the equivalent of a US convenience store) and gas stations, which are the largest retailers of tobacco products by category and depend heavily on tobacco revenue to stay open. According to the study, online media reported 100 store employees suffering an injury in the course of such robberies between 2009 and 2018—ranging from minor scratches to a fractured eye socket to a broken jaw—in addition to psychological stress.
When these robberies take place in Indigenous communities, they are taken less seriously by tobacco control experts, even as they are punished more harshly by law enforcement.
“Several years ago, when the robberies began increasing, colleagues in tobacco control dismissed them as exaggerated tales,” Glover said. “They said the tobacco companies were making it up. Others expressed no compassion for the injured shop staff. They said they deserved it because they sold cigarettes!”
Both the Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking and The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.