Northlanders are worried the lives of Māori and children are at risk, due to world-leading smokefree laws being undone by the new Government.
The new National-Act-New Zealand First Government has agreed to throw out laws that restrict the number of retailers allowed to sell cigarettes, ban those born after 2008 from buying them and cut the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco.
The laws were passed last year with the aim of stopping the 5000 deaths each year from smoking. The changes have been widely condemned by New Zealand health experts as well as copping international criticism.
Figures from 2021/22 show 32.3 per cent of Māori and 11.5 per cent of non-Māori in Northland smoke, compared with 8 per cent for all Kiwis and 19.9 per cent of all Māori.
One impact of this is that lung cancer rates in Northland are 30 per cent higher than in the rest of the country, according to Cancer Society figures.
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer and lung cancer is the largest cause of cancer death in New Zealand, said national adviser Emma Shields.
National said it remained committed to reducing smoking rates, despite it accounting for $500 million a year in tax revenue from tobacco sales from repealing the smokefree laws.
Future generations’ health traded for 30 pieces of silver
Te Tai Tokerau Principals’ Association president Pat Newman said he is appalled at the changes, which will directly affect the health of the children he teaches.
“They’ve traded future generations’ health for 30 pieces of silver. I’m very, very angry.”
An ex-smoker himself, Newman is particularly concerned about removing the smokefree generation rules, which ban people born after 2008 from ever being allowed to buy tobacco.
That rule would have “finally put a lid on the coffin” for tobacco smoking by children, he said.
Previous smokefree laws mean hardly any children at primary school smoke these days, but Newman is worried the Government’s changes send a dangerous signal to children that smoking is a good idea.
He is also concerned the Government plans to encourage vaping as a way for adults to give up smoking. Vaping is already a problem in schools, with children as young as 8 using the devices, he said.
Vapes contain addictive nicotine and their long-term health effects are uncertain.
“It’s a bit like saying we can now drive without safety belts on because we’ve got air bags - vaping is not safe,” Newman said.
Newman stood as a Labour candidate in 2011 but said he had been equally critical of the Labour Government when it maked “silly decisions”.
Errol Murray, from Far North iwi health provider Whakawhiti Ora Pai, said the changes would particularly impact Māori, who had a higher smoking rate and higher cancer rates than non-Māori.
“Like many, many Māori health providers, we are not in support of it, mainly because of the impact that smoking has on our Māori population - we’re seeing it through the clinics.”
Former Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, a member of Hāpai te Hauora Smokefree Taskforce, said Māori would die from the changes.
“They’re happy to let Māori die so that they can get more money for tax cuts for their rich friends,” he told 1News.
“That’s the horrifying thing, that they are so naked in their charge for cash.”
‘We remain committed to reducing smoking’ - National
But Health Minister and Whangārei MP Dr Shane Reti said the Government remained committed to reducing smoking rates.
“I want to assure the people of Northland that we aren’t walking away from long-standing commitments by successive New Zealand governments to reducing smoking rates,” Reti said in a statement emailed to the Advocate.
The “tremendous progress” already made by successive governments cut the smoking rate in half from 16.4 per cent in 2011/12 to 8 per cent in 2021/22.
But Reti said there were concerns Labour’s latest changes would have increased the black market for tobacco and led to an escalation of ram raids, by concentrating retailers down to just a few suppliers.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon also denied the Government was putting profits before people’s health, saying the Government simply did not believe the new laws would work.
But the argument that the tougher laws could have increased black market tobacco or ram raids on tobacco sellers also did not wash with Newman.
It was like not doing anything about gangs because of the fear of criminal repercussions, he said.
“I think there are more people killed through cigarette smoking than by the gangs, yet the Government is coming out against the gangs but actually not doing anything about the cigarette smoking.”
Denise Piper is a news reporter for the Northern Advocate, focusing on health and business. She has more than 20 years in journalism and is passionate about covering stories that make a difference to Northlanders.