New Zealand’s Reversal of Smoking Ban: Impact on Public Health and Government Finances

In a shocking move, the new government of New Zealand has announced its decision to scrap the nation’s smoking ban in order to fund tax cuts. The legislation, which was introduced by the previous government led by Jacinda Ardern, aimed to ban cigarette sales to individuals born after 2008. The smoking ban was designed to prevent young generations from picking up the habit, as smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in New Zealand. The announcement has left health experts bewildered, as public health modelling suggested that the Smokefree laws could save up to 5,000 lives annually. Hāpai Te Hauora, a national Māori health organization, termed this decision as an “unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders”. It is important to note that smoking rates and associated health issues are highest among the country’s indigenous Māori population, for whom the smoking ban would have had the most positive impact.

The Smokefree legislation, in addition to prohibiting sales to young generations, would have mandated that 90% of stores selling tobacco products in New Zealand remove them from their shelves. Furthermore, the legislation aimed to regulate cigarettes to contain a lower amount of nicotine. This Smokefree policy had also served as an inspiration for the UK government, which announced a similar ban for young people in September. However, the smoking ban in New Zealand faced consistent criticism from business groups, with newsagents and corner shop owners expressing concerns about revenue loss from tobacco sales, even with government subsidies. Additionally, conservative lawmakers argued that a ban would create a black market for tobacco.

New Zealand’s new finance minister, Nicola Willis, revealed that the coalition government would repeal the Smokefree laws in order to finance promised tax cuts. Surprisingly, the dominant National party, which did not campaign on repealing the legislation, supported this decision due to pressure from its coalition partners – the populist New Zealand First and libertarian Act. Health experts, who had considered the policy to be safe under a National government, expressed shock at this announcement.

The National party, despite its landslide victory in the recent election, had encountered difficulties in formulating a coalition government with the two minor parties. An agreement was finally reached after six weeks, and the new government was sworn in on Monday. This coalition, however, blocked one of the National party’s key policies related to foreign property ownership, which had been intended to fund tax cuts for middle and higher-income earners. This setback prompted the party to search for alternative means of financing, ultimately leading to the decision to repeal the Smokefree legislation.

Several public health experts have criticized this decision, particularly in light of the implication that tax cuts will be funded by individuals who continue to smoke. Emeritus Prof Robert Beaglehole, the chair of New Zealand’s Action for Smokefree 2025 committee, deemed this suggestion “absolutely shocking”. Public health modelling conducted in 2022 estimated that the Smokefree policy would have saved the country’s health system approximately NZ$1.3 billion over the next two decades. Despite the reversal of the smoking ban, New Zealand still aims to reduce its national smoking rate to 5% by 2025, eventually working towards complete elimination. Recent data indicates that over 80,000 adults have quit smoking in the past year, bringing the adult smoking rate down to approximately 8%.

The decision to repeal the smoking ban has garnered significant attention and generated concerns about the impact on public health and government finances. The reversal of this legislation has left health experts and organizations disappointed, as they considered the Smokefree policy to be a crucial step towards reducing smoking-related health issues and deaths in New Zealand. The government’s justification for this decision, in order to fund tax cuts, has faced criticism and raised questions about the prioritization of economic benefits over public health. While New Zealand remains committed to achieving a smoke-free future, the repeal of the smoking ban underscores the complex challenges in addressing smoking rates and associated health problems.