Once, cigarettes were smoking hot. For some, they still are. But New Zealand could be among the first nations in the world to eradicate smoking entirely. Susan Edmunds investigates the cancer killing the tobacco industry.

Golnaz Bassam Tabar would mark every work deadline achieved with a cigarette. Outside her offices in central Auckland, she'd pop a Mild Seven cigarette between glossed lips, hold back her perfectly straightened hair from her face and light a celebratory smoke.

"Working in a high-pressure environment, it was something to look forward to. Get it done, get it out of the way and get a cigarette."

Bassam Tabar, 30, is proud that she has recently kicked the habit responsible for that loosening of her shoulders-as well as the occasional admiring glance from a stranger.


"When I was growing up I thought it was the coolest, sexiest thing," she says."My mother used to smoke and I used to think she was so gorgeous and glamorous with a cigarette when she was kicking back ... she always looked so cool doing it."

But if the Government gets its way, the rest of the country's smokers will follow Bassam Tabar's lead and kick it in the butt.

Yet there remains a touch of sexiness about smoking-a hint of danger that men seem to notice.

One who'll admit a smoker turns his head is columnist Damien Grant. He says a cigarette between the lips gives a touch of James Dean's swagger to even the mildest of office workers. "You would not marry a smoker, clearly - but a dangerous liaison, certainly."

Our Government has stated its goal to make the country "smokefree" by 2025. It isn't talking about prohibition - just reducing smoking to the level at which cigarettes are
not readily available; smoking is not popular; and it's expensive enough to be beyond the reach of most on an everyday basis. A smoking rate below 5 per cent would qualify. At
present, 16 per cent of New Zealanders smoke.

The Kingdom of Bhutan has already declared itself smokefree. But we are racing countries like Finland to be first in the Western World to eradicate smoking.

In 2025, say lobbyists, it will be time to ban the retail sales of tobacco entirely. Children born today would never light that first cigarette down the back of the school tennis courts.

Researcher Murray Laugesen: "You've got to cut it off somewhere. It's not wise to permit continued sale of such an addictive product."


For those of us who remember offices full of chain-smokers, and planes on which it was quite common to look down the aisle and see a line of hands dangling cigarettes over the armrests, it's almost unbelievable.

Gone are the days when smoking was the Ayn Rand-esque expression of power - holding fire between your fingertips. Glamorous Audrey Hepburn would nowbe forced out of a pub if she put that dainty cigarette holder between her lips.

Transforming smoking from the sexy past-time of cinched-waisted secretaries on Mad Men to a scourge on society has required an orchestrated campaign of health warnings, bylaws and bans.

This week, the Auckland Council revealed it was considering a ban on smoking in public places. Twenty-four other councils, including Rotorua, Whangarei, the Far North, Bay of Plenty and Christchurch, already have policies to discourage smoking in public spaces.

But the biggest blow to fagging came in 2003, when the Government passed legislation to implement smoking bans in schools and workplaces - ending the days of a pint and a cigarette at the pub. From December 2004, there was a new breed of smoker braving the elements outside a pub, or sheltered in the doorways of office buildings. Smoking
was literally thrown out into the cold.

New anti-smoking measures are being proposed all the time: Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia wants a ban on smoking in cars. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) spokesman Michael Colhoun says it is time to introduce measures to control supply as well as demand, such as licensing sellers of tobacco products.

Cabinet has accepted in principle a plan to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging. New Zealand is following Australia's lead on this, although the tobacco companies are
already fighting back hard. Australia won't introduce the move until the outcome of a court case with tobacco giant Phillip Morris is known, probably about September.

Down the lobby, Imperial Tobacco head of finance Brendan Walker rails against the Government's anti-tobacco efforts, saying they are unjustified, unnecessary and unreasonable.

It's a massive infringement on a business's rights, he argues. "We'll take every action we can to protect our intellectual property."

Laugesen, who has been studying smoking since the mid-1980s, says the most effective measures are those that sting smokers in the pocket - and exponential rises in excise
tax have made New Zealand tobacco among the most expensive in the world.

For many years, our tobacco prices have been among the highest in the world, relative to our incomes. New Zealanders now pay more for a standard pack of 20 cigarettes than fellow smokers in Britain, South Africa, the US, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

We pay about the same as Australians at present - but will rapidly outstrip their prices with the New Zealand Government's programme of annual 10 per cent hikes.

Cigarettes will be $1 each by 2016. The price of a 30g packet of tobacco will hit around $40 in four years.

The changes are expected to put an extra $528 million into Government coffers and reduce the number of smoking related deaths by between 300 and 350 a year.

But that's not enough for the Health Ministry, which has suggested the Government
consider raising the price of 20 ciggies to $100 by 2020.

And it's not enough for Turia who, as a minister with first a Labour-led government and now a National-led government, has pushed for anti-smoking measures - including asking drivers to wag their fingers at others they spot smoking with kids in the car.

Turia says she wants a 50 per cent increase on tobacco prices, effective immediately - in line with one of the Ministry's options.

ASH's Colhoun agrees. He says smokers need a big shock increase to encourage them to quit-10 per cent increases are nothing more than a minor irritation that people will alter their budgets to absorb.

Laugesen argues in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal for a price jolt of 40 per cent next year, followed by increases each year of 20 per cent. He says restricting increases to 10 per cent a year will push the smokefree target out of New Zealand's reach until 2040, at the earliest. He hopes the Government may rethink its proposal on the back of submissions on the legislation, which close later this month.

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira would like to see smoking outlawed immediately but says the Government is too pragmatic to do it. "We're in a tight financial squeeze and it's bringing in $1 billion a year for the Government-I can't see that happening."

He has a point. Tobacco is a massive earner for the Government. The amount it collects in excise tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products has almost doubled over the past two decades. Smokers now generate more funds for the Government than it gets in payments from its largest stateowned enterprise, Meridian Energy.

Meridian paid $163m in ordinary dividends last year. Imperial Tobacco, alone, contributed about $249m in tax. Corporate affairs manager Cathy Edwards says 80 per cent of the cost of the company's products is direct revenue to the Government - and that's just one of the three tobacco companies that dominate New Zealand's market.

Despite falling sales overall, Imperial's fortunes appear to be on the up. Its profits rose to $21m last year, driven by a sales increase of 16 per cent. Duty is the biggest cost for tobacco companies, amounting to 72 per cent of Imperial Tobacco's revenue in its latest year. The company also paid $9.3m in tax.

Even Treasury admits smokers basically pay for themselves. They die, on average, 15 years earlier than non-smokers so if they do have treatment for nasty smoking-related diseases, the tax they pay through their habit covers that. Imperial's BrendanWalker says it's something people should remember.

Smokers will carry on smoking, says Laugesen, until the price makes it impossible for them to continue. Eleven per cent less tobacco was sold between 2010 and 2011 and that is being attributed to the price rise. "You can change the warnings and nothing happens but when the price goes up, people act."

In 1992, New Zealand had the lowest tobacco consumption per adult in the OECD, which Laugesen says was achieved through taxation. And the smoking rate continues to drop.

Those few who still smoke consume only 12 a day on average, compared to 20 in the 1980s.

So are we giving enough thought to those smokers who are, by their own admission, addicted?

Smokers need to be offered alternatives, Laugesen acknowledges. "Smokers need some
consideration as to how they will cope. Provision is not being made for smokers to quit by alternative means."

He says de-nicotinised cigarettes should be available, and should be cheaper than standard varieties. He also wants the Government to reverse its ban on e-cigarettes containing nicotine. It is possible to import nicotine ecigarettes from overseas for personal use but the Government does not allow them to be sold.

"If you ask them they will say nicotine is a medicine and can't be sold unless it's an authorised medicine licensed by them, but most nicotine is used recreationally and there's a case for it continuing to be. In my opinion they could be sold under the Smokefree Environments Act."

Talk to the tobacco companies and they say that smokers will find a way to smoke, whatever the Government is doing.

Ban or hike the price on cigarettes, they say, and you'll just provide a vacuum that will be filled by the black market - an illegal trade that benefits no one but organised crime.

An Ernst and Young report to Parliament for British American Tobacco says black market tobacco isn't a major concern because of our geographical location and the way our borders are controlled. But Walker says that's what the Australian Government used to say until last year when it seized 60 tonnes of black market tobacco. He says more than a quarter of smokers are aware of black market products and there will come a point where the price forces them to buy it. "There will be a price that turns law-abiding citizens into the hands of criminals."

Illicit tobacco may not even have to come in via the border.

Two illegal tobacco growers were convicted in the Auckland District Court this week and Imperial Tobacco says the 4.7 tonnes of illegally manufactured tobacco that was seized would have made almost seven million cigarettes.

"The total fines of $7500 are less than 1 per cent of the profit that these men would have made from selling their tobacco illegally."

Much of the illicit tobacco grown in New Zealand is produced in Motueka and the Far North.

The Ernst and Young report says illicit tobacco represents about 3.3 per cent of total consumption at the moment, and lost revenue for the Government of $40m to $50m every year. It says price is the main driver for switching to black market product.

Health lobbyists are relaxed about the likelihood that, as prices rise, smokers will grow their own. The law allows a home grower to produce an amount equal to roughly 80 cigarettes a day. They expect that to be cut down but say growing-your own is a viable alternative when the Government finally does bite the bullet and remove tobacco from shops.

David Owen is a long-time smoker who has beaten them to it. He started manufacturing tobacco at home, almost by accident.

Owen was given three tobacco plants and produced roughly 50g of tobacco, an envelope full of seeds and at least one "bloody incredible" cigar. He says the procedure was easy.

He got most of his information from Waihi man Peter Joyce, who writes a blog about growing your own tobacco: "Here in New Zealand," he writes, "you can buy tobacco seed, grow the stuff, and, if you want to, smoke it quite lawfully. You may not lawfully sell it, barter it or give it away."

Joyce recommends home growers have a dozen plants if possible. "Tobacco pretty much looks after itself ... A lot of unmitigated drivel is put about over the difficulty of curing tobacco."

This country can become smokefree, says Harawira - it's just a case of commitment. He
wants New Zealand to stub out the habit by 2025. "The country wants it to happen. My hopes are high."

Laugesen says even the most determined smokers want change.

"Even the angriest smokers will concede we don't want to go on like this. For children born today, wouldn't it be good if we had a smokefree New Zealand for them?"

Advertising and education campaigns. Smokefree workplaces and bars. Bans on smoking at the park and on the beach. Scary packaging. Plain packaging. Excise tax hikes ... Bassam Tabar says none of the Government's efforts would have made any difference,
had she not been knocked down by a long bout of bronchitis that made it painful to smoke.

Smoking was as important to her as food. That pack of cigarettes was a need, not a luxury.

No matter what the price, she would have paid it. "It doesn't matter how expensive food gets, you have to buy it," Bassam Tabar says. "It's the same. I wouldn't have stopped."