Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Health groups: 'Stop duty-free cigs'

The New Zealand limit is 200 duty-free cigarettes per traveller. Photo / Thinkstock
The New Zealand limit is 200 duty-free cigarettes per traveller. Photo / Thinkstock

Health groups are joining forces to call for duty-free tobacco allowances for travellers to be scrapped.

Several groups have made submissions on the bill to authorise the tobacco tax increases announced in the Budget - and all have called for duty-free allowances to be scrapped and for tobacco tax increases to be much steeper than the proposed increases of 10 per cent a year over the next four years.

The groups - including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, the Heart Foundation, the Maori Medical Practitioners Association, the College of Nurses and Auckland Regional Public Health Service - want the allowances for duty-free tobacco to be scrapped following moves in Australia to drastically cut the duty free allowance.

Travellers can bring up to 200 cigarettes into New Zealand duty free. From September 1, Australia's allowance will drop from 250 to 50.

Hong Kong dropped its duty-free allowance from 60 to 19 in 2010. The United Kingdom has an allowance of 200 unless the traveller is entering from an EU country, in which case the amount is unlimited.

The Government has already agreed to consider changing the duty-free rules in line with other countries, especially Australia.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia said it remained possible, but was complex because of international obligations.

"We are always looking to keep in step with what is happening in tobacco control in Australia. We have been looking at the options on duty-free tobacco products, but there are some complexities that make it difficult."

A Ministry of Health survey in 2008 found that about 7.4 per cent of smokers bought cigarettes from duty-free shops.

Heart Foundation medical director Norman Sharpe said duty-free tobacco was the largest source of black market tobacco in the country, costing $63 million in lost revenue.

"Effectively, this ... is a Government subsidy for the tobacco industry and black market profiteers."

In her submission, Global Public Health director Trish Fraser said that because of changes in Australia, many duty-free retailers said it was no longer worth stocking cigarettes at airports.

"As a result of Australia's experience, I believe there is a good case for New Zealand to ban the sale of duty-free cigarettes, she said."

The health groups are also all uniting behind a call for a 40 per cent increase in tobacco tax next year, followed by 20 per cent increases in each of the three years after that.

That call was first made by public health specialist Dr Murray Laugesen in the NZ Medical Journal, and would push the price of a packet of cigarettes up to $29 after four years, from $13 now.

Under the Budget's increase of 10 per cent a year for four years the cost of a packet of cigarettes would rise to $20.

Dr Laugesen said the higher tax rates the health groups are proposing would prompt 100,000 smokers to quit and reduce consumption by one billion cigarettes next year.

A submission from the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Cardiac Society cited research for the Ministry of Health by Auckland University's Dr Marewa Glover.

That showed two thirds of smokers living in low socio-economic groups had tried to quit after tax increases in 2010 and last year, but relapses were frequent and 40 per cent of those who did not succeed in quitting had instead started buying cheaper brands and smoking closer to the filter to get more out of a cigarette, or had cut their consumption.

The joint submission said this indicated that the 10 per cent increases did not go far enough.

"These behaviours buffered the intended financial impact and appear to indicate more highly restrictive tax increases and other measures are called for."

Several of the groups used the same wording on their submission form, pointing to Dr Glover's research.

"Steeper tax increases will result in more successful quit smoking attempts, as well as mitigating tobacco companies' ability to maintain their sales by introducing ultra low-cost brands," it said.

The finance and expenditure select committee is considering the Customs and Excise (Tobacco Products - Budget Measures) Amendment Bill, and submissions closed on Friday. It is expected to report back in September.

- NZ Herald

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