Richard Prebble’s recent column (NZ Herald, December 6) purported to be an opinion piece but amounted to a tired rehearsal of inaccurate claims often relied on by tobacco companies.
For the record, the measures outlined in Aotearoa’s world-leading Smokefree legislation do not amount to prohibition. Smoking will not be banned, cigarettes will still be sold, though will need to meet a new low nicotine standard, while other nicotine products, such as nicotine replacement therapies and vaping products, will continue to be widely available.
The only prohibition evident in Prebble’s comments is his apparent refusal to allow common sense and evidence to enter into his musings.
According to Hansard, Dr Shane Reti strongly supported removing nicotine from tobacco, which would render smoking non-addictive. In fact, he introduced Supplementary Order paper 314 that would have seen denicotinisation introduced ahead of the retailer reduction measure. Dr Reti stated that denicotinisation “does have some weight to it: it’s being deployed in Colorado as we speak. It actually does have a pathway that is successful.”
His concerns were not about the policy, but about Labour’s reluctance to adopt his proposed sequence of measures.
Prebble’s thinking seems especially muddled about the smokefree generation policy. Like Prime Minister Chris Luxon, he worries about confusion if 35-year-olds may be sold tobacco but 34-year-olds may not. In fact, the three measures contained in the legislation are predicted to reduce smoking to minimal levels, the number of stores selling tobacco will greatly reduce, and the age ID process will remain the same.
In other words, rather than a nation of dairy owners struggling to differentiate between those they may and may not sell to, very few would sell tobacco and only a tiny proportion of their customers would buy it. A much easier situation to manage than the status quo, where dairy owners need to differentiate between 17- and 18-year-olds.
Bizarrely, Prebble suggests Labour should have introduced “achievable” goals. The 2025 goal is entirely achievable for nearly all population groups, if the legislation is implemented as planned. The problem is not the goal but the proposed removal of policies designed to realise the goal.
After offering some advice on social media promotions, Prebble turns on people who smoke and alleges they inflict misfortune on themselves and their children. This specious argument ignores the fact that most people start smoking when young, before they have any understanding of how difficult it will be to quit or how smoking will blight their lives.
Prebble segues wildly from one topic to another and touches briefly on black market tobacco. A careful review of the evidence would have told him that black market tobacco has either stayed stable or is declining.
He insinuates dairy owners face ram raids and violent crime from selling tobacco without realising that, if tobacco poses risks to retailers, they could choose not to sell it. Unlike people who smoke, who become addicted to smoking and are driven to keep using nicotine, retailers are not obliged to sell tobacco. The Ministry of Health’s careful retailer application process considered security and, from April 2025, the only tobacco products sold would have been denicotinised and very unlikely to have high resale appeal.
On one point, though, Prebble is correct. It is inappropriate to take tax from people who smoke, the vast majority of whom wish they had never started, without using that tax to provide intensive cessation support. Using tobacco excise tax to fund quitting programmes could help people stop smoking and reduce poverty, and would be a far better investment than tax cuts or landlord subsidies. The Smokefree Action Plan proposed increasing cessation support alongside denicotinisation, reducing tobacco availability, and the smokefree generation, and would have relieved both the financial burden and health harms of smoking.
It’s clear the coalition Government’s proposal to repeal Smokefree legislation is not in line with views the Health Minister placed on record. The widespread opposition to this proposal, which comes not only from health professionals, but from young people and the general public, has raised serious questions about the Prime Minister’s and Health Minister’s credibility. Instead of enjoying the international acclaim that achieving the 2025 would have brought, they have elicited global condemnation and will leave a tainted legacy where the only beneficiaries are tobacco companies.
If Prebble’s column is an example of the best defence the minor parties can offer, then it is surely time for Luxon and Reti to place considerable distance between themselves and their junior coalition partners. Standing firm and continuing to implement the Smokefree legislation would address the outrage their misstep has aroused, help repair the enormous damage to their credibility, and show the public who is really leading the coalition.
Professor Janet Hoek, Professor Richard Edwards and Associate Professor Andrew Waa are co-directors of Aspire Aotearoa, University of Otago, Wellington.