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New Zealand poised to be first country go smoke-free

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Will New Zealand be the first country to go smoke-free? Officials want to ban anyone born after 2009 from buying cigarettes in future and shut down 95% of tobacco shops by 2025 — but critics warn it will fuel black market

  • A world-first bill is due to be voted on next week in the House of Representatives 
  • If passed, those currently aged 13 and under will never be able to buy cigarettes
  • Critics warn reduced nicotine content will fuel a potential underground market

New Zealand could be the first country in the world to achieve smoke-free status if its radical new strategy goes through Parliament.

The plan’s three-pronged attack includes making it illegal to ever sell cigarettes to people born in 2009 or later – to create a generation that never takes up the habit.

Secondly, the country wants to cut the number of tobacco retailers by as much as 95 percent so cigarettes will be much harder to get.

The third policy will see reduce the nicotine content in the cigarettes that are still being produced to below addictive levels, with the hope of halting people from getting hooked.

If approved, the measures would come into force in January 2023 — but critics are concerned they could fuel a black market.

New Zealand’s plans include making it illegal to ever sell cigarettes to people born in 2009 or later — those who are currently aged 13 and under — in the hopes of creating a generation of non-smokers

HOW DO SMOKING RATES COMPARE? According to the research platform OurWorldInData, fewer than 15 percent of New Zealanders smoked in 2020 compared to around a fifth of Americans

HOW DO SMOKING RATES COMPARE? According to the research platform OurWorldInData, fewer than 15 percent of New Zealanders smoked in 2020 compared to around a fifth of Americans

New Zealand’s new associate minister for health, Ayesha Verrall, has led the creation of the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan, which the country’s House of Representatives is expected to vote on next week.

Supporters, including Māori leaders, are optimistic the bill will pass. If it does, access to cigarettes will be dramatically cut from January next year. 

New Zealand is already in a strong position to bring down its smoking levels — it was one of the first countries to scrap smoking in indoor workplaces in 1990 and restaurants and bars in 2004.

Since 2010, taxes on cigarettes have risen 165 percent, meaning in Auckland, a packet of Marlboros is the equivalent of $21. In New York City, it costs $14.

Graphic images of shriveled lungs and verbal warnings cover New Zealand packaging.

Tobacco use is still New Zealand’s leading cause of preventable death and disease, as it is in the US.

Smoking is estimated to cause about 480,000 deaths annually in America, including deaths from second-hand smoke. 

Critics are worried New Zealand’s low-nicotine policy, in particular, will fuel an unregulated illegal market.

The British American Tobacco New Zealand firm said in a submission to the parliamentary committee that it could generate a “booming” black market

But Nick Wilson, a public health scientist at Otago, told Science the illicit market issue gets exaggerated to ‘scare off policymakers’.

New Zealand already has one of the lowest smoking rates among industrialized nations at 14 percent of adults, according to the online research platform OurWorldInData.

In the United States, for comparison, the rate was more than 20 percent in 2020.

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