National MP accuses Ministry of Health of 'ambivalence' towards smoking alternatives like 'snus'

A National MP is accusing the Ministry of Health of "ambivalence" towards alternatives to smoking, asking officials why they cannot be more "objective". 

National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse asked officials at a select committee about "what appears to be ambivalence towards products that are far less harmful than smoking tobacco". 

The officials attended the select committee in response to a petition calling for the inclusion of snus - a Swedish-style oral tobacco product made from finely ground tobacco leaves - in the Smoke-free Environments Act. 

It comes in a range of flavours and is sold loose and in small sachets. It is consumed by being placed in the mouth where the nicotine is absorbed through the mouth's lining.

The officials said the ministry agrees that snus is much less harmful than tobacco smoking because it's not burned providing it's manufactured to "appropriate quality standards". 

But they said compared with no tobacco use, snus does appear to carry potential cancer risks, and therefore the Ministry of Health "is not considering the legalisation" of it. 

"The Government doesn't support further expanding the range of tobacco products available in New Zealand," Jane Chambers, manager of Tobacco Control at the ministry, said. 

It comes as a proposed amendment to the Smoke-free Environment Act is expected to go before Parliament this month to control how vaping can be advertised in New Zealand.  

Woodhouse acknowledged how the committee heard from young people three weeks ago about how vaping was becoming more popular and could potentially act as a gateway to smoking. 

Snus. Photo credit: Getty

But he said if the Government is trying to take a harm reduction and health-based approach to smoking... "why not be more objective about these things?"

Chambers said products that are significantly less harmful than smoking should be able to be sold provided they meet quality and safety standards.

She said if the select committee wants other smoking alternative products like snus to be legalised, then as a group, they could propose bringing them into the legislation.  

But the man advocating for snus, Miles Illemann of NZ Smoke-free Tomorrow, said he does not want snus included in the amendment because it appears "too conservative".  

"What we would see is more of a blanket regulation across the range of products, and we believe that our snus product is a lot less harmful than even vaping," he told Newshub. 

Michael Woodhouse and Jane Chambers at the Health Select Committee.
Michael Woodhouse and Jane Chambers at the Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

The ministry currently allows for personal importation of snus and that means once it's in New Zealand, there can be no further sale from there. 

"We would rather take the time and get some better risk assessment; if we have to wait and stay out of this Bill, then that's fine."

He pointed to Norway and Sweden which have widespread use of snus. Figures show that smoking has almost disappeared among young Norwegian women.

In New Zealand, Māori women have the highest smoking rate at 37 percent. 

"We need to start looking at the stigma attached to tobacco and nicotine - it's essentially like caffeine," Illemann said. 

"If we bring it in we're not going to actively market non-smokers, but definitely the stigmas need to be brought down [so that it's] treated like a cup of coffee in the morning."

He said he is poised and ready to bring snus into the market if it is legalised.