Māori Community Devastated as New Zealand Government Abandons World-Leading Tobacco Laws

The recent announcement by New Zealand’s new government to scrap the country’s groundbreaking tobacco laws has caused significant distress among the Māori community, who have been at the forefront of advocating for smoking reforms. The indigenous population of New Zealand has the highest prevalence of smoking, making these reforms essential for their health and well-being. The abandoned laws aimed to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, limit the number of tobacco retailers, and prohibit cigarette sales to those born after 2008. The impact of this decision is particularly pronounced among the Māori, exacerbating existing health disparities and financial challenges they face due to smoking-related illnesses.

Teresa Butler, a former smoker and anti-smoking counselor, eloquently highlighted the devastating consequences of smoking within the Māori community. She passionately described her personal journey and the tragic loss of her mother to emphysema caused by decades of tobacco smoking. Butler emphasized the dire financial situation faced by many smokers, especially single mothers, who prioritize spending their limited resources on cigarettes rather than essential needs such as food and heating. The stress, lack of education, and prevalent accessibility of cigarettes contribute to the widespread smoking prevalence among the Māori population.

New Zealand’s tobacco control efforts have predominantly targeted individual smoking cessation through measures such as excise increases on cigarettes, Quitline phone services, and health warning campaigns. While these initiatives have been effective for some populations, the rates of smoking among Māori and Pasifika communities have remained persistently high. Researchers argue that these measures primarily address superficial aspects of tobacco control and fail to address the root causes, including the widespread availability of cigarettes and the tobacco industry’s influence.

The glaring health inequities observed among Māori communities are deeply rooted in New Zealand’s colonial history. Colonization has led to generational theft, racism, and cyclical poverty, all of which severely impact income, housing, and overall health access among Indigenous populations. The Smokefree measures implemented in 2021 were a significant step towards improving health equity and were a direct result of Māori politicians’ persistent advocacy. These policies were backed by scientific modeling, which indicated that they would lead to substantial reductions in smoking rates and a significant decrease in the mortality gap for Māori women and men.

The election of a new government in New Zealand brought about a sudden shift in tobacco legislation. The conservative coalition announced its intention to repeal the Smokefree laws to fund tax cuts, blindsiding advocates and community members who had assumed the laws were irrevocable. Additionally, the government plans to dismantle the Māori Health Authority, further undermining the progress made towards addressing the health disparities faced by the Māori population.

Opponents of the Smokefree laws have raised concerns about potential increases in the black market for tobacco and infringements on personal freedoms. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon argued that reducing the number of tobacco retailers would attract criminal activity to the remaining outlets. These arguments reinforce skepticism about the influence of tobacco companies on policy decisions. The National Party, which forms part of the current coalition government, declined to comment on its political funding sources.

Māori leaders and health activists are mobilizing to overturn the repeal of the Smokefree laws. They argue that regressing on these hard-won reforms would be catastrophic, especially with the high number of Māori deaths attributed to smoking-related illnesses each year. Petitions have been signed by thousands of New Zealanders, and protests have erupted across the country, condemning the government’s decision. However, concerns persist that the government, armed with a parliamentary majority, could dismantle the laws by Christmas.

The international community had viewed New Zealand as leading the charge for a tobacco-free future, with other countries taking inspiration from their progressive legislation. The potential scrapping of these laws sends a concerning message. It raises questions about the political influence of the tobacco industry and the commitment of governments to prioritize public health.

The abandonment of New Zealand’s world-leading smoking ban greatly deepens the despair experienced by the Māori community. Their hard-fought battle for health equity and their aspirations for a smoke-free future have suffered a substantial setback. Efforts must be made to prevent the repeal of the Smokefree laws and ensure that the Māori population receives the support they need to overcome the devastating effects of smoking-related illnesses.