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Country ‘way behind’ smoke-free target

by Michael Neilson, NZ Herald

PRESSURE is mounting on the Government to take drastic action to slash smoking levels with its Smokefree 2025 goals looking increasingly unattainable.

Smoking levels are dropping but at less than half the rate needed, and the Cancer Society has launched a petition to see the number of stores selling the highly-addictive products dramatically culled.

Their proposal would see a phasing out of the 6000-8000 current outlets so that by 2025 tobacco could only be sold by a few hundred licensed tobacco retailers nationally.

However, this idea has been met with anguish from convenience stores, who say while they see the writing on the wall for the future of cigarettes, such a drastic ban would be “devastating”, cutting up to 20 percent profits.

Meanwhile, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall would not be drawn to comment on the proposal, with a discussion document on a draft action plan to meet the 2025 targets to be released later this month — a decade after Smokefree 2025 was conceived in March 2011.

Although there has been a steady decline in smoking in the past 40 years, an estimated 535,000 adults (13.4 percent) currently smoke in New Zealand — a decline of just 6 percent since 2006.

Tobacco remains a key driver of health inequalities with 31 percent of Maori and 22 percent of Pasifika currently smoking.

A study of 1000 New Zealanders by vape retailer Shosha also found that one in four tobacco smokers increased their consumption in 2020.

A pack of 20 now costs at least $33

Price hikes have been credited with falling smoking rates, with steady annual increases seeing a pack of 20 now costing at least $33.

However, Cancer Society chief executive Lucy Elwood said New Zealand would not reach its Smokefree 2025 goal without legislation to greatly limit the availability of tobacco products.

“Tobacco kills about 11 New Zealanders every day, yet it can be sold anywhere,” Ms Elwood said.

“The current laws are not protecting our communities from this devastatingly deadly product.”

On average there were six shops selling tobacco within a 10-minute walk of New Zealand secondary schools, she said.

There were also four times more tobacco retailers in low-income communities where smoking rates were highest.

Advocacy and wellbeing manager Shayne Nahu said removing tobacco from general stores would remove “triggers” for people trying to quit, along with reducing the availability.

New Zealand research also showed school students are less susceptible to smoking when there are a low number of tobacco retailers around their school.

Nahu said the idea had general public support, with a 2018 Government-funded survey finding 68 percent of New Zealanders supported making tobacco less available.

'. . . way off our 2025 goals . . .'

“We are way off our 2025 goals and we need bold action.

“We are not saying completely ban the number of stores, but that they should be R18 specialist tobacco stores, then we look at how many and where they should go across the country.”

Professor Richard Edwards of Otago University said substantially reducing the availability of tobacco and removing nicotine from cigarettes so they were no longer addictive were the two key actions the Government needed to take.

“Our research shows these are the most effective things we can do to stop young people from starting to smoke, and support people who smoke to quit.”

New Zealand Association of Convenience Stores executive director Dave Hooker said while they supported the country’s smoke-free ambitions, stopping their stores — which include superettes and petrol stations — from selling tobacco products would be “devastating”.

Asked how those two ideas could be compatible, Hooker said moving to licensed tobacco-only stores would simply be “too drastic”.

“We understand people are smoking less and less, and a lot are transitioning to vaping and we are trying to adapt to that, but changing this overnight would be devastating.

'For some, tobacco products are about 50 percent of sales

“For some, tobacco products are about 50 percent of sales.

“They also generate a lot of foot traffic, which allows stores to sell a lot of other goods,” Hooker said.

New Zealand was already “highly regulated” and retailers were among the “most responsible” in abiding, he said.

However, a 2018 Auckland Regional Public Health Services survey found while Auckland dairy owners were unwilling to individually remove tobacco for fear of losing business, they were open to legislation establishing specialist, tobacco-only stores.

A Countdown spokeswoman said they supported the goal for a smoke-free Aotearoa by 2025, and would comply with any legislation changes made to achieve this.

They were “pleasingly” seeing tobacco and cigarette sales drop each year, she said, but refused to release any data around profits and sales figures.

Assistant Health Minister Ayesha Verrall was not available for comment, but a spokeswoman said the Government was “absolutely committed to the goal of Smokefree 2025”.

However, questions about how this could be achieved in just four years when smoking rates were still about 13 percent among adults — down from 20 percent in 2006 — and over 30 percent for Maori were ignored.

The spokeswoman said Verrall would be releasing a discussion document on Proposals for a Smokefree 2025 Action Plan, which will be out for consultation this month.

LONG WAY TO GO: A discussion paper on a draft plan to meet New Zealand’s Smokefree 2025 aspirations will be unveiled this month, a decade after the idea was mooted. NZ Herald file picture