A huge increase in the price of cigarettes and tobacco was bulldozed through Parliament last night by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia in a move designed to cut the 5000 smoking-related deaths each year.
All MPs except four of the five Act members supported the surprise move under extraordinary urgency.
It was announced just before 5pm and passed all its stages 118 votes to 4.
The law sets in place three sets of increases in excise of 10 per cent each time, at midnight last night; January 1, 2011; and January 1, 2012.
By then, a typical pack of 25 cigarettes will cost $17.
Loose tobacco for roll-your-own cigarettes was hit with a 24 per cent increase last night, to put it on an equal footing with tailor-mades. It will also be subject to 10 per cent rises next year and the year after.
Mrs Turia, who is Associate Health Minister, said about a third of tobacco use in NZ was of loose tobacco. Users were predominantly young, poor and Maori and Pacific Islanders, and would be most sensitive to price rises.
She described the legislation as "an investment in our future".
Exposure to smoking in the home and tobacco use itself resulted in 5000 deaths a year, Mrs Turia said.
She said it would be irresponsible to dismiss smoking as a recreational past-time, "to minimise the impact of harm caused by justifying tobacco use as a private pleasure that one should be free to indulge in the privacy of one's home and not acknowledge the addictive nature of this tobacco use".
The last time tobacco excise was increased was under Labour in 2000, when it went up by 14 per cent.
Quitline was last night bracing to be swamped by callers wanting to quit today because of the price rise.
The rise in 2000, which totalled 20 per cent once tax and industry increases were also applied, led to calls to the state-funded service nearly tripling to 16,000 a month.
Public health groups welcomed the tax increase, but some said it should have been much bigger.
Tobacco expert Dr Murray Laugesen said 80,000 people who quit after the 2000 price rise started smoking again within four months.
But this time it would be different because nicotine replacement therapy was now subsidised, and the Government had gone some way towards taxing roll-your-owns, which are thinner, the same amount as factory-mades.
Smokefree Coalition chairman Professor Robert Beaglehole said the potential first-round price increase on a packet of 25 cigarettes, which he put at 5 per cent - the Government anticipates 8 per cent - "is simply not enough to deal with this problem".
"We are calling for annual 20 per cent increases in the product price for the next five years."
He and Action on Smoking on Health director Ben Youdan feared the tobacco industry might cut margins to offset the effect of the tax rise.
Mrs Turia said she smoked for a short time when she was aged about 16 and left home to go nursing. "I started going out with [husband] George at the same time and he refused to take me out. He was a real smoking Nazi."
* Australia will force tobacco companies to adopt plain packaging, removing all colour and branding logos within two years, Government sources said late last night.
The law will be in force by January 2012.By Audrey Young Email Audrey, Martin Johnston Email Martin