The legislation, introduced under Jacinda Ardern, aimed to ban cigarette sales to young people born after 2008
New Zealand’s newly elected government has sparked controversy by announcing its intention to overturn the country’s ground-breaking smoking ban, citing plans to use the money for tax cuts.
The legislation, originally introduced under the previous Jacinda Ardern-led government, aimed to ban cigarette sales to people born after 2008, with the aim of curbing the country’s leading cause of preventable deaths.
Health experts have strongly criticized the abrupt policy reversal, with Professor Richard Edwards from the University of Otago condemning it as a “retrograde step to world-leading, absolutely outstanding health measures”.
The legislation, internationally recognized, incorporated measures such as restricting tobacco retailers and reducing nicotine levels, with models suggesting a potential annual saving of up to 5,000 lives.
While the Smokefree laws have received praise as a strong public health policy, opposition has emerged from business groups and lawmakers concerned about lost revenue and the potential emergence of a black market for tobacco. The surprise announcement by new finance minister Nicola Willis to scrap the laws shocked pundits who had been expecting a continuation of the policy.
Willis attributes the reversal to National’s coalition partners, New Zealand First and Act, who are pushing for the laws to be overturned. The National Party, which secured victory in October’s election, did not feature smokefree laws prominently during its campaign.
The delay in political negotiations with minor parties and the rejection of a flagship policy on foreign property ownership led to a reassessment of the government’s sources of funding.
Critics say the proposal to fund tax cuts through continued smoking is “shocking” and health professionals are concerned about the impact on the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.
The Māori population, with the highest rates of smoking, would benefit significantly from the now-repealed policy. Public health modeling has estimated that the Smokefree policy could save NZ$1.3 billion over the next two decades.
Despite the recent setback, New Zealand’s commitment to reduce the national smoking rate to 5% by 2025 remains. The repeal process requires parliamentary approval, where the government holds a majority.
The unexpected policy change has sparked a broader debate about public health priorities and the financial trade-offs involved in decision-making.
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