The two people most likely to become New Zealand’s next Health Minister are locking horns over their records on preventative health as the workforce demands answers on approaches to smoking, vaping, alcohol and unhealthy food.
Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall and National’s health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti appeared yesterday alongside Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick on a political panel to field questions on their approaches to preventative healthcare, an event organised by the University of Otago and Health Coalition Aotearoa.
Verrall said her hands were somewhat tied because Labour hadn’t yet announced the healthcare policies it would campaign on ahead of the election, but it didn’t stop her from stating the progress made under a Labour Government could be in danger.
“The alternative to our Government at this election is one that will include two parties that have promised tax cuts, and one of them incredibly harsh tax cuts,” she warned.
“You cannot sustain the types of investments we are making in housing and the social determinants of health and the health system itself with those tax cuts.”
National and Act have both proposed tax cuts which they claim would be funded through cutting what they believed to be wasteful Government spending.
She also told the audience a National/Act government would reduce the current focus on addressing inequity.
“A plan of the alternatives at this election, a core plan run by all of them, is an attack on the equity agenda that this Government is incredibly proud of.
“It is absolutely important that if we are to improve the health of New Zealanders, we do so equitably. I’m incredibly proud to be from a party that has put Te Tiriti o Waitangi at the heart of the health policy,” Verrall said, later stating not using the Treaty in this way was among the main barriers to good healthcare.
Even though National has released more than two dozen policies, Reti too confessed he was unable to inform the crowd of his party’s policies in this area, saying “the timing of those sort of things is out of my hands”.
However, he didn’t shy away from highlighting Labour’s broken promises, including a Budget 2021 commitment to deliver 20 mobile dental caravans, which had not been realised, and failing to hit its target in boosting Te Ara Oranga consultations, a programme designed to reduce methamphetamine demand.
“Have they been achieved? Not even close,” Reti said.
The Government’s world-leading smoke-free legislation was regularly referenced. Passed into law last year, it meant anyone born on or after January 1, 2009 would never be able to purchase tobacco products.
Asked whether he would make any changes to the law, Reti wouldn’t commit to not altering the smoke-free generation age cap, which Verrall was quick to point out to the audience.
“There is a very clear way to get tobacco out of our community ... and I think that the only responsible stance is to keep the bill as it is,” she later told the Herald.
Reti’s preference appeared to be reducing nicotine from tobacco products and assessing whether that was enough to satisfy New Zealand’s smoke-free targets.
Alcohol was another common discussion point, particularly for Swarbrick, whose Alcohol Harm Minimisation Bill failed at its first reading in April.
The bill, which would have included banning alcohol sponsorship and advertising in sports, was opposed by National and Act. Labour allowed MPs to vote as they pleased, but only 17 voted in favour - the bill ultimately being voted down 85 votes to 29.
Reti believed education was a key factor in reducing the harm caused by alcohol, saying he wanted to see more organisations going into schools to teach about “responsible drinking” and the harm alcohol could cause.
Pressed further to define responsible drinking, Reti described a quantity of drinking in a forum that was safe socially and physically.
Verrall accepted alcohol did have a place in her “public health utopia”, but she wanted to see a reduction of the “level of hazardous drinking we are seeing”.
Swarbrick, making a quip about how she wished such pragmatism was applied to cannabis, which was still illegal, referenced elements of her failed bill that would have reduced harm, such as “complete prohibition on advertising and sponsorship” from alcohol companies.
To an audience of academics and health workers, Swarbrick pleaded with them to continue speaking out on parties’ health policies.
“For the love of God, do not leave politics to the politicians because we’ll get what we’ve always got.
“We need you and we need your voices in this election.”
Adam Pearse is a political reporter in the NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based at Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Northern Advocate in Whangārei before moving to the Herald in Auckland, covering Covid-19 and crime.