'Tobacco sticks' not welcome - anti-smoking campaigner

Tobacco sticks
The device used to heat the sticks is totally legal, but the sticks themselves aren't (Getty/supplied)

An anti-smoking campaigner says legal action against cigarette maker Philip Morris sends the right message.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) on Thursday said the US company's electronic 'tobacco sticks', which heat nicotine to release vapour without burning, are illegal.

It has laid charges over the sticks, known as HEETS, and the court case is expected to begin in early June.

"It is good to see the Ministry of Health holding tobacco companies to account," says Prof Janet Hoek of Aspire 2025, also a marketing lecturer at Otago University.

The device used to heat the sticks is totally legal, but the sticks themselves aren't, says MOH, under the Smoke-Free Environments Act 1990 - which prohibits advertising or selling tobacco products for oral uses other than smoking.

The difference between HEETS and e-cigarettes is they contain tobacco, while the latter do not.

The MOH was alerted to the product by a rival company, Imperial Tobacco, earlier this month. Philip Morris said Imperial was only upset because it was at a "competitive disadvantage".

"They don't have a competitive heated tobacco offering, and they're doing everything in their power to stop smokers from switching to heated tobacco," Philip Morris New Zealand general manager Jason Erickson told the Otago Daily Times.

Prof Hoek says there's little evidence the sticks reduce traditional smoking, as is claimed by the manufacturer.

"New products should have to demonstrate they support complete smoking cessation more effectively than existing cessation options.

"If the Government does allow more diverse tobacco products to be sold within New Zealand, it is crucial that it does not see this step as an alternative to the well-established measures known to reduce smoking prevalence.

"It must continue with its programme of tobacco excise tax increases, and it should use the tax revenue obtained from tobacco to support quitting among groups where smoking prevalence peaks."

Smoking rates have declined in recent years. According to Statistics NZ, presently around 38 percent of Māori 15 and older smoke, 25 percent of Pacific Islanders, 8.7 percent of Asians and 14.5 percent of Pākehā and other ethnic groups. 

Smoking rates peak between 18 and 34, are steady between 35 and 54, and drop off later in life.

In March the Government signalled impending law reform around e-cigarettes, making them entirely legal - probably by the end of 2018. 

Philip Morris welcomed the changes, saying it would help progress towards the 2025 smoke-free goal. 

"It is clear that products that do not burn tobacco are significantly better than conventional cigarettes," said Mr Erickson.