How New Zealand’s smoking ban was abolished – and what Britain can learn from it

WWhen New Zealand announced its world-first law to ban smoking for future generations, it was widely hailed as a life-saving plan that would prevent thousands of smoking-related deaths, level healthcare inequality and save the economy billions of dollars.

The landmark legislation – introduced in 2022 – introduced a steadily rising smoking age to prevent those born after January 2009 from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes, as well as a raft of other measures to make smoking less affordable and accessible.

It received widespread public support, international praise from health campaigners and inspired similar plans in Britain. But before the changes came into effect, New Zealand’s new right-wing government unexpectedly scrapped them.

As Britain makes its own attempt to ban smoking, here’s a look at the rise and fall of the New Zealand law, and what lessons the UK could learn.

How a groundbreaking law came about

New Zealand’s plan to reduce smoking rates began long before the landmark ban.

Cigarette packs received warnings in the 1980s, licensed premises became smoke-free in the 1990s and in 2010 a tobacco tax made cigarettes more expensive year on year.

That year, a Māori Affairs Survey found that smoking rates among Māori and Pacific peoples were increasing, despite an overall decline, prompting the Smokefree Aotearoa New Zealand 2025 target: an ambitious plan to reduce smoking rates to less than 5% for all population groups. .

Since then, the number of daily smokers has increased steadily declined – down to 6.8% in 2023, compared to 15.8% ten years earlier. But inequality persists: smoking rates among Māori are much higher: 17.1% in 2023, compared to 36.3% a decade ago.

Labor MP Ayesha Verrall, then New Zealand’s health minister, was tasked with designing the ban. Photo: Facebook/Dr. Ayesha Verrall

According to Health NZ, around 5,000 people still die every year from health problems related to smoking. Of total Māori deaths, almost a quarter (22.6%) were possibly attributable to smoking, compared to 12.3% among non-Māori and non-Pacific people.

To help tackle this inequality, Jacinda Ardern’s Labor government introduced the world’s first smoking ban for future generations in 2022, designed by then Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall.

“The number of smokers was very low and we knew that further regulation could create a smoke-free generation and tackle the inequalities that still exist,” Verrall told the Guardian.

The plan would also drastically reduce the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products, allowing their sale only through specialty tobacco stores, and reducing the number of stores legally allowed to sell cigarettes from 6,000 to just 600 nationwide.

Modeling showed the new measures would save thousands of lives and billions in health care costs, Verrall said. “The public response was incredibly supportive and the opposition was muted.”

Praised by health care advocates, loathed by the business community

Health workers, Māori organizations and anti-tobacco groups praised the law.

“The overall feeling was … a real sense of relief,” said Andrew Waa, an associate professor of public health at the University of Otago.

“There was huge support from the general public and internationally we received very strong positive feedback from colleagues who were really interested in how this could happen in other countries.”

The law helped draw attention to the tobacco industry itself, rather than the individuals who smoke, Waa said.

“(Verrall) was an epidemiologist who understood health and was eager to … pass legislation that benefited the country.”

Not everyone was equally enthusiastic. The centre-right National party and the small libertarian Act party – now together in the coalition government – ​​opposed the law, while National favored it roll out denicotization first and Act claim that this would be the case create a hidden market.

The most vocal public protest came from owners of convenience stores – known in New Zealand as dairies – who were concerned the ban would undermine their income and expose them to crime.

The tobacco industry also protested. A research by broadcaster RNZ in one of the most visible anti-smoking groups – Save Our Stores – found that the campaign, designed to resemble a grassroots movement, was quietly supported by tobacco companies British American Tobacco New Zealand and Imperial Brands.

Yet very few people predicted the lifting of the ban in November last year, within weeks of the new coalition government being elected. No party had made it an election problem.

As part of the coalition agreement with populist New Zealand First party, National agreed to withdraw the amendments, which include “removing denicotisation requirements, lifting the reduction in the number of retail outlets and the revival ban”.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Nicola Willis confirmed the new measures would be phased out before March, with revenue from cigarette sales going towards the Coalition’s tax cuts.

In February this year, Health Minister Casey Costello said the government was committed to being smoke-free by 2025but a different regulatory approach would be needed, saying the ban was ‘untested’ and raising concerns about a ‘prohibitionist approach’ that could have drawbacks for retailers and in terms of crime.

Government ministers repeatedly claimed the law would increase tobacco-related crime, even if it did Senior health officials told them this would have the opposite effect.

The consequences

The withdrawal was met with anger from health workers and opposition parties. A petition with 45,000 signatures was presented to Parliament calling on the government to change course, and an urgent claim was lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal – a commission of inquiry into claims made by Māori against the Crown.

“Shock would be an understatement – ​​it was just absolute dismay,” Waa said. “They are trading people’s lives for money – and I’m shocked by that.”

Casey Costello, New Zealand’s current health minister, denies being influenced by the big tobacco industry. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Verrall was similarly shocked, “as were doctors across the country,” she said.

The reversal would halt progress towards a smoke-free future and “entrench persistent inequalities, with Māori more likely to smoke and die from the effects of smoking”, Verrall said.

Another RNZ research Last month it was reported that the language in the notes sent from Costello’s office to health care workers was strikingly similar to tobacco industry talking points, prompting accusations that big tobacco had influenced the government.

When asked about the allegations, Costello said in a statement to the Guardian that she had nothing to do with the tobacco industry. “My focus in this role is on reducing the number of smokers and providing practical approaches to help people quit.

“We are dealing with a very small number of youth smokers, 19,000 in total, and a larger group of people who have been smoking for a long time and need help to quit. Cutting off supply, which the previous government planned, does not reduce demand or deter addicts from smoking.”

The lessons

When asked about the UK’s legislative plans, Costello said that “the situation in the two countries is very different”.

“The number of smokers in New Zealand is around half that of Britain, and that is the main reason we have withdrawn the previous government’s proposals – we are well on our way to meeting the Smokefree 2025 target reach less than 5% of people who smoke daily.”

However, Waa and Verrall had some suggestions.

Waa believed that greater efforts to secure cross-party support would help prevent policy flip-flops. “In retrospect, more could have been done to get National to vote for the bill at the time, because they effectively supported the bill but wanted some realignment and had some concerns about it.”

Public consultation is also important, he said. New Zealand research shows this young people support a smoke-free futurelike smokers themselves. a December survey Following the government’s announcement, it emerged that the majority of New Zealanders wanted to maintain the world’s leading smoke-free measures, with 67% of respondents in favor.

But the biggest hurdle to creating a lasting smoking law is the tobacco industry itself, Waa said.

“In Aotearoa New Zealand, the fingerprints of the industry are everywhere,” he says. “(Other countries) need to ensure that there is no industry influence on the way governments make decisions.”

Verrall agrees. “Our experience is that big tobacco works in the shadows.”

“I encourage MPs across the UK to vote positively for the health of their people, but also be prepared for the battle after the bill is passed.”