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Saturday, February 17, 2024

New Zealand Reverses Course on Smoking Ban to Fund Tax Cuts

New Zealand's new government, led by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, plans to abandon a pioneering smoking ban designed to prevent sales to those born after 2008, drawing criticism from health experts and Māori health organizations.

New Zealand’s newly formed government has sent shockwaves through the nation by announcing plans to abandon the groundbreaking smoking ban introduced under the previous Jacinda Ardern-led administration.

The legislation, lauded globally, aimed to prohibit cigarette sales to individuals born after 2008. The move, designed to curb smoking-related deaths, especially among younger generations, is now set to be repealed to fund tax cuts, sparking criticism from health experts and the public alike.

Health professionals, including Prof Richard Edwards, a tobacco control researcher, expressed dismay, labeling the decision a “retrograde step on world-leading, absolutely excellent health measures.”

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The Smokefree laws, implemented in 2022, encompassed measures such as limiting tobacco retailers and reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes, with potential to save up to 5,000 lives annually. New Zealand’s health system was expected to benefit significantly from the legislation, with estimated savings of NZ$1.3 billion over the next two decades.

The surprising reversal comes as part of a coalition agreement between the National Party and its partners, New Zealand First and Act. Despite winning the October election, the National Party struggled for weeks in negotiations, ultimately leading to compromises that included abandoning the Smokefree laws.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis defended the decision, attributing it to the impact on government finances and pressure from coalition partners, Act and New Zealand First.

Public health advocates argue that the government’s prioritization of tax cuts over health initiatives, particularly in the midst of a global drive to reduce smoking rates, is a concerning move. The abrupt about-face raises questions about the coalition’s commitment to public health and its potential consequences on New Zealand’s overall well-being.

The Smokefree legislation was specifically designed to benefit marginalized communities, notably the Māori population, where smoking rates and associated health issues are disproportionately high. The decision to repeal the laws has been termed “catastrophic for Māori communities” by Hāpai Te Hauora, a national Māori health organization.

Public health experts warn that the repeal could lead to an increase in smoking-related diseases, undermining the progress made in recent years. As the nation strives to reduce its smoking rate to 5% by 2025, the government’s move poses a significant setback and raises concerns about prioritizing economic interests over public health.