New Zealand has announced it will outlaw smoking for the next generation, so that those who are aged 14 and under today will never be legally able to buy tobacco.
New legislation means the legal smoking age will increase every year, to create a smoke-free generation of New Zealanders, associate health minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said on Thursday.
“This is a historic day for the health of our people,” she said.
The government announced the rising age alongside other measures to make smoking unaffordable and inaccessible, to try to reach its goal of making the country entirely smoke-free within the next four years. Other measures include reducing the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products to very low levels, cutting down the shops where cigarettes could legally be sold, and increasing funding to addiction services. The new laws will not restrict vape sales.
“We want to make sure young people never start smoking so we will make it an offence to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of youth. People aged 14 when the law comes into effect will never be able to legally purchase tobacco,” Verrall said.
New Zealand’s daily smoking rates have been dropping over time – down to 11.6% in 2018, from 18% a decade earlier. But smoking rates for Māori and Pacifika were far higher – 29% for Māori and 18% for Pasifika. “If nothing changes, it would be decades till Māori smoking rates fall below 5%,” Verrall said. She said eradicating smoking in the next four years was within reach: “I believe it is. In fact, we’re on track to for the New Zealand European population. The issue is, though, if we don’t change what we’re doing, we won’t make it for Maori – and that’s [what] the plan is really focused on”.
The policies were welcomed by public health experts on Thursday. “New Zealand once again leads the world – this time with a cutting-edge smokefree 2025 implementation plan – it’s truly a game changer,” said Dr Natalie Walker, director of the Centre for Addiction Research at University of Auckland. The reduction of nicotine in cigarettes was a world first, said public health prof Chris Bullen. From a health perspective, “all my wishes have come true”, he said.
Smoking has already been widely replaced by vaping among teenage New Zealanders, and is also attracting many young people who would never have taken up smoking – according to surveying of 19,000 high school students this year, nearly 20% were vaping daily or several times a day, the majority with high nicotine doses. That’s compared to 3% of those aged 15-17 who smoked daily in 2018, or 13% who smoked a decade earlier.
The plan has come under criticism from some parties – the Act party has argued that reducing the nicotine in products will hit lower-income people hardest, who will have to buy more cigarettes and smoke more to access the same dose. Verrall said the very low levels required by the laws had been researched and proven to help people quit.
Concerns have also been raised about a growing black market for tobacco. The government acknowledged this risk in initial proposals: “Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” it said.
Initial plans for a smoke free generation of New Zealanders have now been finalised after public consultation. They were first floated in April. They will still need to pass through the legislative process, but should not face any obstacles – Smokefree 2025 is a headline Labour policy, and the party holds a majority in New Zealand parliament. Verrall said the legislation would be introduced in 2022, with the age limits coming in in 2023.