Coronavirus: Cigarette factory OK to stay open in lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says

The Prime Minister says it's okay for a cigarette factory in Lower Hutt to remain open, despite a coronavirus lockdown requiring all non-essential businesses to close.

Jacinda Ardern says Imperial Tobacco in Petone supplies goods to supermarkets and dairies, so is officially declared an 'essential service' and allowed to be in operation.

"We haven't gone into the specifics of every single individual part of the supply chain for a supermarket," she told media on Friday afternoon.

"You'll of course have noted that we shut down New Zealand in a 48-hour period, so we kept the guidance very simple: if you supply to our supermarkets, then those workforces are able to continue to produce supplies."

The comment comes after Imperial Tobacco told Newshub on Thursday that the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) had given them permission to keep operating.

MBIE has repeatedly refused to comment to Newshub about their decision.

Many social media users have expressed outrage that a cigarette manufacturer has been allowed to stay open while bakers and butchers are forced to shut up shop during the four-week lockdown.

Among the most vocal critics of MBIE's decision is the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, which questions whether cigarettes are "essential for the provision of life" as stated in its initial criteria.

"This decision is particularly unfortunate given the emerging evidence that COVID-19 infections may be more severe among smokers, and flies in the face of the Government's commitment to achieve a Smokefree Aotearoa," says charity board member Professor Richard Edwards.

"A healthier, more beneficial way for the Government to help smokers would be to subsidise over-the-counter nicotine replacements in pharmacies, supermarkets, and petrol stations - or, ideally, make them available free of charge."

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation is calling on MBIE to reverse its decision, saying it "effectively prioritises the interests of the tobacco industry over retailers that provide a useful service".

"We understand and empathise with people who are still dependent on nicotine, and that the current lockdown will be incredibly stressful for many people," chief executive Letitia Harding said.

"However, for smokers who feel able to, especially those with respiratory health problems, we urge them to take this opportunity to quit smoking."