NZ Election 2020: Labour promises to end tobacco excise tax hikes

Labour says if re-elected, it won't keep slapping an extra 10 percent excise tax on cigarettes - instead just adjusting it to match inflation.

Over the past decade, the price of a pack of cigarettes has gone up considerably - from $10 in 2009 to about $33 now. That's because Governments have, like clockwork, increased the amount of tax charged on a pack at the start of each year since 2010.

At the same time, smoking in New Zealand has dropped from 21 percent of adults to 12.5 percent in 2019.

But there have been concerns the impact of the price rises has been felt mostly by the poor - more likely to be smokers - particularly Māori, who smoke at rates 2.7 times higher than non-Māori.

"It's daylight robbery on behalf of successive Governments," New Zealand First leader Winston Peters told Magic Talk on Wednesday. "Twenty dollars should be the maximum for any packet of cigarettes."

It's a rare case of policy agreement between NZ First and ACT. 

"The Government is addicted to the revenue," leader David Seymour told RNZ in June - it rakes in about $2 billion a year. 

Labour MP David Parker said the party wouldn't be reducing the excise tax.

"We want to see people stop smoking, right? That's good," he told The AM Show on Friday.

But it looks like the decade of tax hikes are finished. 

"I don't agree with Winston that we should reduce the taxation. I do think... that increasing tax has now reached its limit. All you're doing now is whacking the poor old smoker who's not going to give up. I don't support putting tax up.

"The last Government legislated for 14 percent increases. We implemented the last couple of them. We've said from now on we're not going to put it up by 10 percent per annum - we'll just adjust it for inflation each year." 

Winston Peters.
Winston Peters. Photo credit: RNZ

A review of the tobacco excise tax increases commissioned by the Ministry of Health in 2018 and carried out by Ernst and Young found they did help reduce smoking - and rather than regressively hurting low-income smokers, actually helped.

"Research has found tobacco excise increases to be progressive - on the basis that lower-income populations respond more strongly to tobacco taxation, the savings/avoided costs from quitting/not taking up smoking would be of most benefit to low-income groups and the health benefits from excise increases accrue mostly to low-income households," the report read.

The increases also worked particularly well on Pacific households - they were twice as likely as Māori to stop smoking altogether, while Māori instead usually turned to cheaper brands. 

The analysis found an average price elasticity of about -0.5 - meaning for every 10 percent the price goes up, about 5 percent of existing smokers quit. The research found "no compelling evidence" the impact of excise tax increases was weakening.

"The weight of evidence is that the excise tax increases are an essential part of a package of interventions needed to reduce tobacco consumption and daily smoking prevalence."

With NZ First polling beneath the 5 percent threshold it's unlikely Peters' call for cutting the price to $20 a pack will happen. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern ruled it out.

"Jacinda said no and he's locked in with them, so goodbye Winston," National MP Simon Bridges said on The AM Show, appearing alongside Parker.