Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
At the very least, there is most certainly a discernible increase in the level of heat being thrown on the new National-Act-New Zealand First Government and its intentions to throw out laws before next March that restrict the number of retailers allowed to sell cigarettes, ban those born after 2008 from buying them, and to also cut the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco.
Those very laws were passed last year under the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products [Smoked Tobacco] Amendment Bill. The objective was plain and simple – to steadily reduce the number of smokers in New Zealand and perhaps have a totally smoke-free nation somewhere in the 2030s. This is a laudable, if slightly overly ambitious, goal that has gained plenty of support from all corners of society. Smokers included.
As far as legislation goes, the current setup is often touted as world-leading but that label will be stubbed out in no time should the legislation changes proceed.
Tobacco products have been on the receiving end of increased taxes for several decades as successive governments sought to offset the rising cost burden on the health sector. The more we came to learn about how much it was costing the country, the more the taxes went up.
Trying to hit smokers in the pocket made an impact, though how much of an impact is debatable, but it also created a new problem … a black market. No government likes a black market. It’s unregulated, illegal, and worst of all … it doesn’t pay taxes. New regulations were needed to restrict people either coming to New Zealand or returning to New Zealand with trolleys full of cartons of fags. Some of which would be offloaded for a tidy profit.
No sooner had the customs loophole been closed than new problems started to crop up. Crime came into the picture. At today’s average price of $35 a packet, cigarettes are like little boxes of gold coins just waiting to be pilfered.
Petrol stations and the humble corner dairy became the target of brazen thieves who would pull a weapon and leap over the counter. They were not aiming for the cash register, but as many cartons of cigarettes as they and their posse could carry.
It got worse. A new terminology entered the vernacular. Ram raids. Although by this time, the pursuit of tobacco had quickly spread to the grabbing of anything and everything, hence the term raid.
So, where to from here?
Labour, only a matter of minutes in opposition, fired some verbal shots, claiming that National is trying to fund its promised tax cuts by encouraging children to take up smoking. A bit like a poke in the eye with a lit ciggie. Pointed, if a little predictable.
National responded by saying that, under the coalition agreement, disposable vaping products will be banned and penalties increased for illegal sales to under-18s. There was also an agreement, we were told, to reform the regulation of vaping, smokeless tobacco, and oral nicotine products. No specifics were attached to that last statement, so we will have to wait and see how the new Minister of Health, Dr Shane [Ciga] Reti, sets about the task at hand.