Friday, July 12, 2024

New Zealand’s new right-wing government has said it will repeal a law that would have gradually banned all cigarette sales in the country over the course of several decades.

The law, passed by a previous government led by Jacinda Ardern, a prime minister who became an international liberal icon, took effect this year and was celebrated as a potential model that other countries might someday follow. It would have gradually introduced changes in retail cigarette sales and licensing over several years until tobacco could eventually no longer be legally sold in New Zealand.

By Jan. 1, 2027, the law would have made it illegal to sell tobacco products like cigarettes, to anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009, according to the government. The law would then have gradually raised the smoking age, year by year, until it covered the entire population.

But last week, the new government said in published agreements between the three coalition partners that it would repeal the law, without explaining why.

The incoming finance minister, Nicola Willis, later told Radio New Zealand that the Ardern government’s plans to restrict sales of tobacco and reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes could have led to a “massive black market.”

“So absolutely, we still want to see lower numbers of people smoking, but we do not think that the outgoing government’s policy is the best way to achieve that,” Ms. Willis told the public broadcaster. Approximately 8 percent of New Zealanders smoked daily as of November 2022, according to the former government.

The government, New Zealand’s most right-wing in a generation, is under pressure to deliver on campaign promises to introduce tax cuts that it once planned to pay for through a tax on foreign buyers purchasing property in New Zealand, which it has since abandoned. Analysts have questioned how it would make up for lost revenue from the proposed tax cuts.

Ms. Willis told the current affairs show Newshub Nation last week that scrapping the smoking ban would allow it to continue receiving tax revenue from tobacco products, which in turn would help pay for other tax cuts.

Health advocates and policy experts have said repealing the law would be shortsighted, in part because preventing new generations of young people from smoking would save the government money in the long term.

“I think it’s a backward step,” Robin Gauld, a health policy expert at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said on Tuesday. “No one really wants this other than industry and people involved in selling tobacco.”

Ayesha Verrall, an infectious disease doctor and Labour Party politician who served as health minister, criticized the plan to repeal the smoking ban.

“It means that ultimately lives will be lost, and there’ll be more health care costs down the road,” Dr. Verrall said over the weekend.

A pack of cigarettes in New Zealand sells for approximately 35 New Zealand dollars, or $21, and sales tax and excise duties account for roughly 70 percent of the price. That high figure has been linked to a rise in reported retail crime, with corner stores that sell tobacco products being targeted by thieves.

One of the parties in the new governing coalition, New Zealand First, campaigned on repealing the law and dropping a planned tobacco excise increase in 2024, among other tobacco-related issues.

Ms. Willis, a member of the center-right National Party, the largest member of the coalition, told Newshub Nation that the two smaller parties — New Zealand First and ACT — had been “insistent” on reversing a range of tobacco restrictions.

“We’ve agreed to that in these coalition agreements,” she said.

Shane Reti, the incoming health minister, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Neither did representatives for New Zealand First or ACT.

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