Smokefree 2025: Government proposes gradually increasing legal age of cigarette purchases

The Government is considering gradually increasing the legal age of cigarette purchases, among a raft of other proposals, to meets its Smokefree 2025 goal.

The other proposals include reducing nicotine in smoked products to "very low levels", prohibiting cigarette filters, setting a minimum price for tobacco to make it less affordable and outlawing innovations aimed at increasing appeal.

The target to slash smoking in New Zealand came after the Māori Affairs Select Committee led an inquiry in 2010 into the tobacco industry and the consequences for Māori. It recommended setting a goal for Aotearoa to be smoke-free by 2025.

The Government responded in 2011 by adopting the goal to make New Zealand smoke-free by 2025. This is interpreted to mean less than 5 percent of New Zealanders of all ethnic and social groups will smoke daily by 2025.

But in the Government's just-published proposals to meet the 2025 goal, it says a business-as-usual approach will mean New Zealand will not meet its smoke-free goal, and Māori will not reach it until 2061.

Smokefree 2025: Government proposes gradually increasing legal age of cigarette purchases
Photo credit: Supplied

One of the proposals to meet the goal, described as a "smoke-free generation policy", would prohibit the sale and the supply of smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of the public from a specified date.

For example, if it commenced on 1 January 2022, people younger than 18 years at that time or those born after 1 January 2004 would never be able to lawfully be sold smoked tobacco products. This option would "grandfather existing smokers", but the supply of new smokers would cease.

"That's a proposal in which we gradually increase the age of purchase restrictions by one year every year," said Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall. "That means eventually you'd have a group of people who wouldn't legally be able to purchase until the age of 25."

Quick facts on smoking:

  • almost half a million New Zealanders still smoke daily
  • smoking is a leading cause of preventable death and disease in New Zealand and causes one in four cancer deaths
  • tobacco kills approximately 4500 people every year in New Zealand, that is around 12 deaths a day due to smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Māori smoking rates remain much higher than those for the overall population
  • Māori women have New Zealand's highest smoking rates, with just under one-third smoking daily
  • cancer is the leading cause of death for Māori women and the second leading cause for Māori men; lung cancer mortality among Māori women is over four times that of non- Māori women
  • smoking prevalence among Pacific peoples remains persistently higher than that of the overall population, with only a small reduction in prevalence in the last 10 years
  • second-hand smoke exposure also increases a child's risk of serious infections that affect breathing, including pneumonia and bronchitis
  • second-hand smoke causes around 15,000 asthma attacks in children aged under 16 years in New Zealand every year
Smokefree 2025: Government proposes gradually increasing legal age of cigarette purchases
Photo credit: Supplied

Research shows people want to quit smoking. In a 2017 survey by Ernst & Young, 77 percent of smokers surveyed reported that they had tried quitting or reducing their smoking in the past.

The Government has tried to prevent smoking by taxing tobacco, legislating smoke-free and vape-free areas such as indoor workplaces and schools, prohibiting advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products, and standardising packaging with warnings on cigarette packages.

Between 2011 and 2020, tobacco excise tax increased 10 percent each year on top of the annual adjustment made to keep pace with inflation. No further tobacco tax increases are proposed, and Dr Verrall has ruled out further tax hikes.

What else can we do to stop smoking?

One of the proposals is restricting sales to a limited number of store types to make it substantially more difficult to buy cigarettes. The result would be to reduce uptake by young people and support smokers who are trying to quit.

Those stores could also be required to be licenced to sell tobacco products, like how vaping retailers now have to apply become specialist vape retailers (SVRs).

New Zealand currently has no restrictions on where tobacco can be sold. At least 80 percent of it is sold through convenience stores, service stations, on-licensed premises and supermarkets. An estimated 5000 to 8000 retail outlets sell tobacco in New Zealand.

Another proposal is to link the number of retailers in an area to its population size and density to reduce the number of retail outlets selling smoked tobacco and make it more difficult to buy cigarettes.

Tobacco retail outlets are highly concentrated in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods; their density is about four times greater in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods compared with the most advantaged neighbourhoods.

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall is overseeing the Smokefree 2025.
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall is overseeing the Smokefree 2025. Photo credit: Newshub

The problem with making smoking less available is that, as the Government points out, it could contribute to an increase in illicit trade in tobacco.

"Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling."

The Government's proposal to reduce the level of nicotine in tobacco products could also have negative side-effects, as pointed out by ACT's social development spokesperson Karen Chhour.

"New Zealand smokers who can least afford it will spend more on their habit and in turn do harm to those around them if the Government mandates lower nicotine in tobacco," she says.

"There's a strong argument that this will drive up the trade of black market tobacco with high nicotine, driving those addicted to cigarettes to turn to crime to feed their habit. The gangs will be rubbing their hands with glee."

The Government is seeking feedback on the proposals. You can provide feedback here.

The Ministry of Health will analyse the feedback and use it to inform a draft action plan, which Cabinet will consider before it is publicly released.

The closing date for submissions is May 31.