Govt allies play down smoking harm, back repeal

The Government is preparing to repeal new Smokefree measures that would rapidly save thousands of lives, a move that has widely been condemned by national and international health experts.

Health Coalition Aotearoa (HCA) is therefore disappointed to see the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH NZ) chair and director among those defending the repeal by minimising smoking harm – particularly to Māori and Pacific peoples, promoting vaping as the main tobacco control strategy, and suggesting a smokefree generation has already been achieved.

The most recent New Zealand Health Survey found that daily smoking rates had decreased to 6.8 per cent – from 8.3 per cent the previous year. A result very much welcomed by HCA and its members.

But it’s critical not to underestimate the devastating harm of smoked tobacco and to do everything possible to reduce that harm. This proportion of daily smokers is equivalent to 284,000 individuals who are being irreparably harmed and will die early. That is the equivalent to the populations of Wellington and Napier combined.

Importantly, the disproportionate harm of smoking to Māori is shamefully lost in the spin by repeal supporters.

Māori daily smoking rates remain 2.5 times that of non-Māori at 17 per cent. The 2022-2023 Health Survey results for Pacific peoples are inconclusive due to a low sample size. In the 2021-2022 results daily smoking rates for Pacific peoples was 18.1 per cent.

“The new Smokefree measures would have reduced smoking harm to Māori – both in health and financial terms – to repeal those would be a travesty,” HCA co-chair Professor Lisa Te Morenga said.

It is wrong to conclude from the Health Survey data that we can abandon new Smokefree measures.

These measures – reducing retailers and nicotine levels in cigarettes, and creating a smokefree generation – would rapidly and dramatically cut tobacco addiction by addressing the availability and addictiveness of smoked tobacco.

For these reasons the measures were rightly hailed as world-leading by national and international experts and advocates in tobacco control. The same groups – including Action on Smoking and Health US – condemned the proposed repeal, as demonstrated by rallies, a petition (signed by over 50,000 people) and open letters.

It’s the same reason a survey showed two thirds of New Zealanders support the law.

New Zealand’s current tobacco control measures alone will not achieve the Smokefree 2025 goal (less than 5 per cent smoking rates) for all ethnic groups – without the new Smokefree law measures. 

The promotion of vaping as the primary tool to reduce smoking rates by the Government and its allies is highly problematic.

Vapes are not approved by Medsafe NZ as a cessation tool and come with known and unknown physical, social, and cultural harms including potential long-term impacts on the wider whanau, particularly rangatahi and whānau who have never used vape products.

Vaping should only be used to support quitting when other methods that have a better safety profile, including advice from healthcare workers, toll-free quit lines, mobile and digital cessation services, and approved Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT) have been unsuccessful. These proven quit strategies need to be promoted and well-resourced so that vaping addiction is minimised.

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