Dentists lament New Zealand’s failing anti-tobacco focus

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Dentists lament New Zealand’s failing anti-tobacco focus

Radical changes to tobacco control laws in New Zealand were set to take effect in July this year. (Image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Public health experts were taken by surprise when New Zealand’s new government announced that it would repeal the country’s world-leading anti-smoking legislation. Aiming to create New Zealand’s first “smoke-free” generation, the previous government had passed laws that would have prohibited anyone born after 2008 from buying cigarettes. The changes are now set to be wound back, drawing the ire of many, including medical practitioners and other countries who had looked to New Zealand for leadership in the fight against tobacco addiction.

Passed in 2022, the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act would have all but outlawed tobacco sales. Dr Chris Bullen, president of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco and professor of general practice and primary healthcare at the University of Auckland, explained to Radio New Zealand (RNZ) late last year that the legislation was world-leading because of its 90% reduction of retail points of sale, its reduction of nicotine levels in cigarettes to those below the level that creates addiction and its “generational ban” on sales to anyone born after 2008. 

Due to come into effect in July this year, the legislation has been repealed by the country’s new coalition government, which said that it would have created a black market for tobacco and led to an increase in crime—moot arguments that are regularly espoused by the tobacco industry itself, according to critics. Government ministers later pointed out that revenues from tobacco excise taxes were needed to fund the government’s planned tax cuts. Prof. Janet Hoek, a smoke-free researcher at the University of Otago, told the broadcaster: “When I heard that one of the reasons why the proposal to appeal [the law] was to fund tax cuts, I thought it is just hard to imagine a more cynical and callous decision.” 

The estimated dent in annual tax collection would have been around ND$1 billion (€567 million), or just over 1% of total tax revenues, RNZ reported.

“Any measures which can reduce the financial and social burdens of oral disease and oral cancer should be taken.”—Dr Amanda Johnston, NZDA President

New Zealand’s Council of Medical Colleges has called on the government to reverse its decision, and Health Coalition Aotearoa has launched a campaign to save the smoke-free laws. The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA), which expressed dismay in a media release that focused on the harms to oral health caused by smoking, pointed out that around 8% of adults in New Zealand smoke daily and that some 550 New Zealanders are diagnosed with cancers of the lip, mouth and pharynx every year. Modelling cited by Health Coalition Aotearoa suggests that the regulations could have saved government coffers ND$1.3 billion in health care costs over the next 20 years. 

“Removing the option of smoking for future generations had the potential to significantly improve oral health and help prevent a range of very real problems before they start,” NZDA President Dr Amanda Johnston said. She added that “any measures which can reduce the financial and social burdens of oral disease and oral cancer should be taken” and that “the NZDA can see no sense in repealing measures that would further reduce the negative impact of smoking on the health of future generations”. 

The international media has labelled the about-face a win for the tobacco industry and a disaster for Māori. December figures from the country’s ministry of health show that 6.8% of New Zealand adults smoke daily—among Māori it is 17.1%.

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