The Maori smoking rate is 45 per c' />

Parliament's Maori Affairs select committee had good reason to initiate an inquiry into the tobacco industry.

The Maori smoking rate is 45 per cent, more than double that of the rest of the population and, on average, Maori take up the habit at a startlingly young age of 11.

Such statistics also fuelled the committee's programme to halve the overall smoking rate by 2015 and make New Zealand smoke-free by 2025.

Sensibly, it conceded that most people would not support prohibition as a way of reaching this goal. Even so, its prescription is too radical, and not much of it is ever likely to be enacted.

The committee wants tobacco displays in shops to be banned, and cigarettes and loose tobacco to be sold only in plain packaging. It also seeks to ban smoking in cars and public places.

On a more novel note, it wants the Government to cut back the amount of tobacco that can be imported and to reduce the number of retail outlets, while also reducing the quantity of cigarettes for sale at each shop.

The committee suggests, further, that tobacco companies should pay for addiction treatment, including nicotine patches.

The attempt to curb the supply of tobacco is an area that even the most ardent of anti-smoking campaigners have been wary of treading. There are compelling reasons for this.

While much of the reaction from retailers and the industry to the committee's report has been self-serving, it is fair to assume that sharply restricting the supply of tobacco would create a black market. Demand would have to be filled illegally. That, in turn, could invite the participation of organised crime.

Most of the rest of the committee's recommendations follow fairly much the approach of the past decade.

This has focused on restricting the marketing and promotion of tobacco, protecting people from second-hand smoke, subsidising education campaigns, and reining in the display of cigarettes in shops. Yesterday the first measure was taken by the Government, with the removal of cigarette displays in retail outlets and a move to plain packaging of tobacco products announced by Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia.

The approach over the past 10 years has, however, been far from a total success. During its time, the overall number of smokers has varied little from 20 per cent.

There is little to suggest more of the same would have much of an impact. What works best, according to researchers and health officials, are price rises.

Yet these have been absent from the anti-smoking strategy for a decade until being resurrected this year in legislation that will ultimately lift the tax on cigarettes by more than 30 per cent and loose tobacco by more than 44.

That law was shepherded through Parliament by Mrs Turia, who is also Maori Party co-leader. To a large degree, she has stolen the thunder of the select committee.

It, quite correctly, recognises that price is a major barrier to youngsters, in particular, obtaining cigarettes, and notes that supermarket tobacco sales have fallen by 15 per cent in the six months since Mrs Turia's initiative. But, having commended this approach, all the committee can do is seek further incremental tax increases above the annual inflation rate.

In reality, the Government has already closed the one yawning gap in the long-running anti-smoking strategy. This offers more promise than the more radical measures proposed by the committee, some of which would have malign consequences.

Yet even a more cogent and comprehensive Government policy may yield only so much. Education campaigns and other measures have left New Zealanders in no doubt about the dangers of tobacco. Diehards, however, will probably always stand in the way of making the country smoke-free, let alone by 2025.