Cigarette sales are plunging faster than any time before as smokers turn to alternatives like vaping - with 410 million fewer smokes sold annually than just two years ago.
Dr Murray Laugesen, a trustee of the End Smoking NZ charity, analysed tobacco company returns that are published by the Ministry of Health and found a remarkable drop in sales.
About 2132 million cigarettes were sold last year - 193 million fewer than 2018, and following a 217 million drop the previous year.
The rate of decline from 2017 to 2019 has been about 8 per cent annually - roughly three times the rate across the first six years of the Government's Smokefree 2025 project, started in 2011.
The trend is driven by factors including cost (a 25-pack of cigarettes was $16.39 in 2011 and is now about $41.89) and alternative products like vaping e-cigarettes - but needs to be accelerated if the December 2025 goal of less than 5 per cent smoked tobacco prevalence is to be met.
"Continuation of a 9.5 per cent annual per-capita decline in tobacco use, suggests the goal will still not be met until at least 2029, four years overdue," said Dr George Laking, an oncologist and chair of End Smoking NZ.
"Success in the goal would imply a further reduction of tobacco imports by 5 per cent per year from 2021 onwards."
Tobacco prices had been hiked by elective successive excise increases since 2011, but Budget 2020 broke that pattern and didn't include an increase.
Laking said increasing the cost was one of the best ways to drop smoking rates, but prices had reached a point where doing so might create more harm than good.
"Hardship experienced by disadvantaged people is so severe ... if everyone in New Zealand enjoyed a middle class standard of living then we would not be in a grey area - we would say, 'this is the most effective tool that we have'.
"But everyone in New Zealand does not enjoy that standard of living. That has perhaps hamstrung us, to some extent."
Setting aside cost, Laking said other effective measures would be to reduce to availability of tobacco, and offer hardcore smokers an acceptable alternative.
The latter had advanced from nicotine patches and gums to e-cigarettes and "heat not burn" devices, which heat tobacco to lower temperatures than cigarettes.
"Although electronic cigarettes and heat not burn products are not perfect - the best thing is to not use any of these products at all - actually, if we were to convert our smoking epidemic into a situation of people using reduced-harm products, that would actually be a much better situation."
University of Auckland research has surveyed 14 and 15-year-olds and found a quarter of those who had tried an e-cigarette had never smoked tobacco, and critics of vaping worry about its appeal to young people, with schools speaking out about having to confiscate devices every day.
This month, legislation banning advertising and restricting e-cigarette flavours was finally passed, 620 days after Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa promised to regulate the industry in November 2018. The bill will come into effect in November, and will also allow the Ministry of Health to recall products, suspend them and issue warnings.
Laking noted the new legislation sought to strike a balance between helping people quit smoking, and avoiding uptake of vaping and new products by non-smokers including young people.
"You have to strike a balance between those two things, and the question is, where do you strike it and how do you strike it?
"Those of us who support vaping-to-quit do often feel somewhat overwhelmed by the barrage of claims asserting the risks of vaping, that are, scientifically, very poorly constructed."
Laugesen's analysis factored in sales of loose tobacco and found, on a per-population basis, cigarette consumption among people aged 15 and over fell from 670 to 543 a year, across 2017 to 2019 - a faster drop than in the previous six years.
Its release comes before a webinar to mark the 30th anniversary of the Smoke-free Environments Act, hosted by ASH and the Helen Clark Foundation, and featuring an interview with Clark about next steps for tobacco control.
Decline in NZ cigarette sales
2015: 2583 million
2016: 2522 million
2017: 2542 million
2018: 2325 million
2019: 2132 million
Source: End Smoking NZ, calculated from calendar year returns of manufacturers. One roll-your-own cigarette = 1.43 factory made cigarettes. Doesn't include cigars, cigarillos, blunts, hookah tobacco, heat not burn, and duty-free tobacco.