New Zealand Splits Opinion by Scrapping Smoking Ban

December 5, 2023

New Zealand’s new coalition government plans to abandon the country’s world-first policy of an incremental smoking ban, in order to fund tax cuts. Just as the original policy divided expert opinion, so has news of its repeal.

In 2022, under the center-left Labour Party government then led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand passed legislation to ban cigarette sales to anyone born after 2008, which would ultimately have made all sales illegal.

Proponents said that this and other measures in the package, like reducing the number of tobacco retailers by 90 percent and cutting the legal amount of nicotine in cigarettes, would help the country reach its goal of being “smokefree” (prevalence below 5 percent) by 2025. No similar restrictions were imposed on vape sales.

Following plenty of international acclaim for this legislation, the government of the United Kingdom recently announced a similar plan.

But New Zealand’s October elections saw the center-right National Party win the biggest share of the vote and form a coalition government, led by new Prime Minister Chris Luxon. Scrapping the tobacco law wasn’t part of the National Party’s platform, but its coalition partners, the populist New Zealand First and libertarian ACT parties, have reportedly been “insistent” on doing so.

Prime Minister Luxon said his government is committed to lowering smoking rates, but through education and encouragement to switch to vapes.

The reversal was announced on November 25. Finance Minister Nicola Willis said this will happen before March 2024, with tax revenues from cigarette sales to be used to help fund broader tax cuts.

Prime Minister Luxon said his government is committed to lowering smoking rates, but through education and encouragement to switch to vapes.

Professor Richard Edwards, a public health researcher at the University of Otago, called the coalition’s announcement “a travesty and an act of public health vandalism.”

“Like almost everyone in the health sector who cares about reducing smoking to enhance health and well-being,” he told Filter, “I am utterly appalled at this deliberate act to jettison measures that the main government party previously largely supported and acknowledged would have a substantial impact in rapidly reducing smoking prevalence.”

Labour Party health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall also condemned the move, telling RNZ it damaged prospects of reaching a smokefree 2025 goal that “was actually set by National when they were [formerly] in government with the Māori Party.”

Although New Zealand’s reported rate of daily smoking reached an all-time low of 8 percent in 2022, declines have been less pronounced among adults over 35. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in New Zealand.

“The coalition is making a mockery of what most Kiwis hold dear.”

Some public health modeling suggested that New Zealand’s smokefree law would have reduced rates of smoking and related deaths, saved health care costs and reduced health inequities for the country’s Indigenous Māori population. Māori people have much higher rates of smoking and related harms than the general population.

Andrea Konnerth, a New Zealander whose father died of lung cancer caused by smoking, described the government’s reversal as a “shock,” saying that most people were proud of the legislation.

“As a country that was colonized, our Indigenous peoples are … severely affected by inequities,” she told Filter. “This will affect the health care outcomes for our minority groups—the coalition is making a mockery of what most Kiwis hold dear.”

The coalition’s broader policies toward Indigenous people have already sparked protests.

Yet Māori people are also disproportionately targeted by arrests and incarceration. And this, in part, is why Marewa Glover—a Māori behavioral scientist who founded the Centre for Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking—opposed the smokefree law.

“Prohibition has a cascade of negative effects on marginalized groups.”

Illicit markets are an inevitable result of prohibition, Dr. Glover wrote for Filter in 2021, and with access and nicotine levels squeezed, Māori would “bear the brunt” of associated violence and enforcement.

“I am for evidence-based policy—effective policies that do not increase burden on the lowest-income and marginalized groups,” she told Filter in response to the new development. “Prohibition has a cascade of negative effects on these groups, who also have disproportionately higher smoking rates in New Zealand; laws that create more trip-wires for them to fall foul of the law are not good public health policies.”

Glover further noted that the new government will likely repeal the country’s ban on oral tobacco harm reduction products, such as snus. “This will give the remaining people who smoke access to three reduced-risk alternatives [including heated tobacco products] to smoking,” she said, “rather than the one they have now (vapes)—one that is being demonized and marred by misinformation.”

Glover also favors the new government’s policy of restricting taxes to combustible tobacco only, which “should reduce the price for heated tobacco products.”

Some might suggest the government is “addicted to tobacco tax money,” Laking said.

The coalition’s plan to use the revenue from cigarette sales to fund broader tax cuts is something that Dr. George Laking, a medical oncologist at the University of Auckland, is uncomfortable with.

“It is worrisome to hear the government actually seems to want people to continue smoking as a way to [reduce] tax,” he told Filter. Some might suggest the government is “addicted to tobacco tax money,” he added. “I don’t think the government should view nicotine tax, or other ‘sin taxes’ as a proper way of increasing the consolidated fund.”

“The basic problem with tobacco is it is both addictive and a poison,” said Laking, who has treated people with smoking-related cancers. “The major advance in recent years is we can now separate the addiction from the poison. For addiction with much less poison, we have vapes. For poison with much less addiction, we have very low nicotine cigarettes. That’s why restricting cigarette sales to VLNCs only, plus allowing access to vapes, is a winning combination for the smokefree goal.”

VLNCs have their critics, however, with research suggesting people may puff harder or smoke more to obtain equivalent nicotine effects. Some see a VLNC-only policy swelling an illicit market for full-nicotine cigarettes that already exists due to high tobacco taxes.

New Zealand’s world-leading vaping framework has already put us on track to achieve smokefree targets.”

While many have strong opinions for or against the new government’s move, Eric Crampton, chief economist at the New Zealand Initiative think tank, is moderately optimistic.

“The health benefits of the policy package were always overstated,” he told Filter. “And so the health harms of rescinding the package are being similarly overstated.”

Crampton pointed to research by Action on Smoking and Health, illustrating that New Zealand was projected to hit its 2025 target of a smoking rate below 5 percent prior to the 2022 legislation.

New Zealand’s world-leading vaping framework has already put us on track to achieve smokefree targets,” he said. “The 2022 legislation risked strengthening the black market, hindering further shifts to reduced-harm alternatives. The incoming government will scrap those rules, while looking again at reduced-harm alternatives like snus.”

He agrees with Prime Minister Luxon’s view that the unregulated, untaxed tobacco market would have continued to grow under the 2022 legislation. Economists, Crampton noted, “have often favored legalizing cannabis within regulated and taxed markets” for the purpose of securing revenues for the public instead. 


Photograph by Alan Levine via Pxhere/Creative Commons 2.0

Both The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, and the Centre for Research Excellence:  Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.


Kiran Sidhu

Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales. Kiran's fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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