Dairies struggle to give up cigarettes

It appears retailers are just as addicted to cigarettes as smokers are.

Two dairies in west Auckland have been convinced to give up cigarettes to mark Thursday's World Smokefree Day - but only for that day, with sales resuming on Friday.

And giving up profits for just one day was too much for other outlets, who refused to take the financial hit a day without ciggies would bring.

Students in Kelston asked five of their local dairies to take a stand, but only two of them were willing - the other three saying while they liked the idea, cigarettes are just too profitable.

"For them it was more their profit," Lineti Latu of the Stop the Stock on Keli-Block group told The AM Show.

"There was concern their business was going to be affected for the day. But they said they support it - they signed the petition, but they didn't want to do it."

It's not that there's such a high mark-up on cigarettes - most of the price is tax, nowadays - it's the other items people buy.

Bhavin Patel runs a cigarette-free shop in Palmerston North. He told Stuff that despite being smoke-free for years, he still turns away 10 or 15 customers every day who would have bought other items, but leave without buying anything once they realise they can't get smokes.

"Tobacco is the key driver of business for dairies these days - people can just go to supermarkets and get their groceries," Mr Patel said.

He's considering abandoning his smoke-free policy, even if it means risking robberies.

The stigma of smoking

Ms Latu said even now, seven years from the Government's smoke-free 2025 goal, she has friends who smoke.

"We see our grandparents do it, we see our parents do it, so when it comes to that time when we can do it, we do it."

But by the time they realise it's not "cool", it can be difficult to quit.

Lung Foundation CEO Philip Hope says very little of the money the Government raises through its ever-growing tobacco tax is actually spent on helping people quit.

"The Government generates $1.9 billion from tobacco taxes each year - 3 percent of that is directed into smoking cessation programmes," he told The AM Show.

"We advocate that should be much, much more. The increases which are happening on January 1 every year have not been directed to smoking cessation and tobacco control."

Around 5 percent of year 10 students smoke. Photo credit: File

He suggested the stigma that's been attached to smoking could be backfiring, with people too embarrassed to admit they have a problem.

"There are a lot of people out there that can't even inform their employers they smoke, for fear that they may be disadvantaged in their employment. So there are some major stigma issues that we have to work through."

Treatment options for smokers - current and former - is also lagging behind other, less-stigmatised addictions, he says. Anti-cancer drug Keytruda for example has been approved for people suffering melanoma, but not lung cancer.

"We have around 600 to 700 people dying prematurely from lung cancer every year because immunotherapy is not funded in New Zealand. There are two applications that have been filed for Keytruda in New Zealand... immunotherapy needs to be funded in New Zealand. It would be the biggest leap forward in terms of addressing inequity."

Pemetrexed has only recently been funded in New Zealand, about 13 years behind Australia.

"That gives you an idea about where New Zealand tracks with treatments for lung cancer," said Mr Hope.

The Government's definition of smoke-free is fewer than 5 percent of adults smoking. It's dropping from 25 percent in the mid-1990s to 16 percent today. Among year 10 students, it's dropped from 29 percent in 1999 to 5 percent in 2017.

Lung cancer kills more Kiwis than any other type of cancer. Its symptoms include wheezing, chest pain, lower back pain, shortness of breath, weight loss, coughing up blood and persistent cough - but the Ministry of Health says it's particularly deadly because it's usually detected too late to stop.

"Anyone can get lung cancer, but there is a direct relationship between smoking and lung cancer," said Mr Hope.

"Eighty percent of people that get lung cancer have smoked, but only 30 percent... are smoking at the time they're diagnosed. Unfortunately there are 700,000 people that have quit smoking - those are courageous people that have quit a really serious and complex addiction, but most of them don't actually know what the symptoms of lung cancer are."