For the past few years, the number of smokers has remained at much the same level. About a fifth of people still smoke. For Maori women, the figure touches almost 50 per cent. This is particularly frustrating, given the time, effort and money devoted to lowering the rate.

No longer can anyone be in any doubt about the danger of smoking but the problem persists, despite an encouraging increase in the number of teenagers who have never lit up. Clearly, something in the anti-smoking policies of the past decade has not been right.

That approach has focused on restricting the marketing and promotion of tobacco, protecting people from second-hand smoke, subsidising quit programmes, and education campaigns. Public health officials spoke of the likes of the 2004 ban on smoking in bars as "denormalising" the practice.

Further steps along the same path are a ban on the display of cigarettes in shops and the placement of graphic pictorial health warnings on packets.

While this process was in train, the previous Government remained disinclined to increase tobacco taxes. In doing so, it disregarded much overseas research that indicated this was the best way of tackling tobacco use, as well as the advice of many local experts.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health's five-year plan for tobacco control, released in 2004, put price increases at the top of a list of effective anti-smoking measures. This had already been underlined by local experience, which showed a sudden and sizeable reduction in cigarette sales whenever the tax had been increased.

The Clark Government may have been deterred by the fact that price rises would hit the wallets of those on low incomes particularly hard. If so, it failed to see the overall good of the measure most likely to get people to quit. Even those who continued to smoke could be expected to smoke less.

Fortunately, it seems that Tariana Turia, the Associate Minister of Health, is prepared to drive a more realistic approach. Last year, she spoke supportively of tobacco tax increases, saying these were "worth exploring if we are genuine about wanting to prevent uptake" of smoking. As reported in the Herald series "Turning Point?" the Ministry of Health has now given the clearest signal yet that the Government will go down that track.

Aside from the effectiveness of such an approach, there is plenty to justify it. In New Zealand, excise and sales tax is 70 per cent of the retail price of tobacco. That is ahead of Australia, but significantly below the likes of Canada, New York City, Britain and France. In the latter two countries, the comparable figure is 80 per cent.

Equally, tax increases would go a considerable way towards making smokers pay for the burden they place on hospitals. At the moment, smoking costs the economy more than $1.6 billion a year, of which $1.5 billion is spent on healthcare. A little more than $1 billion is taken by the Government from smokers in excise tax and GST.

Attempts to "denormalise" cigarettes appear to have had some impact on young people. They should be a prime target in the campaign to make smoking a dying industry in every sense.

Youngsters would, as Mrs Turia suggests, be especially sensitive to any increases in price. The failure to take such a step over the past decade has simply made smoking relatively more affordable for them.

Opposition to increasing the tax on cigarettes would doubtless portray smokers as being picked upon unfairly. But that would hold no sway if some of the revenue was allotted to quit programmes or education campaigns. Mrs Turia seems ready to take that approach. Handled adroitly, it is the right recipe for reducing the smoking population to a minimum of diehards.