Smoking in New Zealand today is only a fraction of what it used to be. Its outright prohibition in enclosed public places, restrictions on its advertising, promotion and display at the point of sale, and punitive taxation, have probably all contributed to its decline. It is nearly 30 years since governments began to take these steps and by any measure they have been effective. At last count, only 15 per cent of the population over 15, or just over half a million people, still smoked daily. Many might have imagined the figure was even lower; it is common in some social circles these days to find nobody smokes anymore. But that is the remaining problem, smoking is now heavily concentrated in certain ages and ethnic groups.
Among young men aged 18-34, more than 25 per cent smoke. Young women have a lower rate but it is still relatively high at 20 per cent. The Maori rate is 38 per cent and among Maori women it is higher, nearly 42 per cent. Those of Pacific Island descent have a rate just under 25 per cent. The Maori and Pacific populations are younger than the population generally, which helps account for the high smoking rate among younger people overall. No wonder, then, that the Maori Party is the most assiduous anti-smoking legislator in Parliament.
In the Budget last week, Finance Minister Bill English attributed another round of programmed tobacco tax hikes to the Maori Party. Yesterday the party was mainly responsible for the draft "plain pack" cigarette regulations announced by Associate Health Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga. The Maori Party has been pressing for the graphic pictorial warnings in place of brand design on cigarette packets for years. It was probably hoping for a decision more definite than draft regulations and a consultation document but it can count those as progress. It will be much more satisfied with the tax increases that will raise the cost of a packet by more than $2 a year.
Within four years it will be costing a worker on the average wage a full hour's work to afford his or her packet a day. And since those smokers are disproportionately young and Maori, it is not hard to understand the concern of those who say the tax hikes will hit hardest those households that can least afford them. "Racist" was the term used by one critic though it cannot apply when the policy has been initiated and sustained by Maori MPs. They believe it will be effective, making their people better off in the long run.
But will it be effective? The question that should be asked of all further anti-smoking measures is, why are some people still smoking despite everything that has been done to discourage them? They have proved impervious to rapid price increases every year for five years now. Why should the next four annual increases make any difference to them? And what evidence is there that more graphic health warnings will be any more effective than those cigarette packets have carried for many years? Anti-smoking campaigns can sound more like vengeance on tobacco companies than practical remedies for addiction. Some people might never quit.
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