Pressure is mounting on the Government to take drastic action to slash smoking levels with its Smokefree 2025 goals looking increasingly unattainable.
Smoking levels are dropping but at less than half the rate needed, and the Cancer Society has launched a petition to see the number of stores selling the highly-addictive products dramatically culled.
Their proposal would see a phasing out of the 6000-8000 current outlets so that by 2025 tobacco could only be sold by a few hundred licensed tobacco retailers nationally.
However this idea has been met with anguish from convenience stores, who say while they see the writing on the wall for the future of cigarettes, such a drastic ban would be "devastating", cutting up to 20 per cent profits.
Meanwhile, Associate Minister Ayesha Verrall would not be drawn to comment on the proposal, with a discussion document on a draft action plan to meet the 2025 targets to be released in April - nearly a decade after Smokefree 2025 was conceived in March 2011.
Although there has been a steady decline in smoking in the past 40 years, an estimated 535,000 adults (13.4 per cent) currently smoke in New Zealand - with a decline of just 6 per cent since 2006.
Tobacco remains a key driver of health inequalities with 31 per cent of Māori and 22 per cent of Pasifika currently smoking.
A study of 1000 New Zealanders by vape retailers Shosha also found that one in four tobacco smokers increased their consumption in 2020.
Price hikes have been credited with general falling smoking rates, with steady annual increases seeing a pack of 20 now costing at least $33.
However Cancer Society chief executive Lucy Elwood said New Zealand would not reach its Smokefree 2025 goal without legislation to greatly limit the availability of tobacco products.
"Tobacco kills about 11 New Zealanders every day, yet it can be sold absolutely anywhere," Elwood said.
"The current laws are not protecting our communities from this devastatingly deadly product."
On average there were six shops selling tobacco within a 10-minute walk of New Zealand secondary schools, she said.
There were also four times more tobacco retailers in low-income communities where smoking rates were highest.
Advocacy and wellbeing manager Shayne Nahu said removing tobacco from general stores would remove "triggers" for people trying to quit, along with reducing the availability.
New Zealand research also showed school students are less susceptible to smoking when there are a low number of tobacco retailers around their school.
Nahu said the idea had general public support, with a 2018 Government-funded survey finding 68 per cent of New Zealanders supported making tobacco less available.
"We are way off our 2025 goals and we need bold action.
"We are not saying completely ban the number of stores, but that they should be R18 specialist tobacco stores then we look at how many and where they should go across the country."
The petition is also supported by Otago University tobacco research group Aspire.
Professor Richard Edwards said substantially reducing the availability of tobacco and removing nicotine from cigarettes so they were no longer addictive were the two key actions the Government needed to take.
"Our research shows these are the most effective things we can do to stop young people from starting to smoke, and support people who smoke to quit and stay quit."
New Zealand Association of Convenience Stores executive director Dave Hooker said while they supported the country's smokefree ambitions, stopping their stores - which include superettes and petrol stations - from selling tobacco products would be "devastating".
Asked how those two ideas could be compatible, Hooker said moving to licensed tobacco-only stores would simply be "too drastic".
"We understand people are smoking less and less, and a lot are transitioning to vaping and we are trying to adapt to that but changing this overnight would be devastating.
"For some tobacco products are about 50 per cent of sales, and because they have low margins 10 to 20 per cent profits. These producers are tremendously important.
"They also generate a lot of foot traffic, which allows stores to sell a lot of other goods."
New Zealand was already "highly regulated" and retailers were among the "most responsible" in abiding, he said.
However a 2018 Auckland Regional Public Health Services survey found while Auckland dairy owners were unwilling to individually remove tobacco for fear of losing business, they were open to legislation establishing specialist, tobacco-only stores.
A Countdown spokeswoman said they supported the goal for a smokefree Aotearoa by 2025, and would comply with any legislation changes made to achieve this.
They were "pleasingly" seeing tobacco and cigarette sales drop each year, she said, but refused to release any data around profits and sales figures.
Foodstuffs - which includes Pak n Save, Four Square and New World supermarkets - did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Assistant Health Minister Ayesha Verrall was not available for comment on Tuesday, but a spokeswoman said the Government was "absolutely committed to the goal of Smokefree 2025".
However, questions about how this could be achieved in just four years when smoking rates among adults were still about 13 per cent among adults - down from 20 per cent in 2006 - and over 30 per cent for Māori were ignored.
She said the Associate Minister of Health will be releasing a Discussion document on Proposals for a Smokefree 2025 Action Plan, which will be out for consultation in April.