Labour calls for minister Casey Costello's sacking over new tobacco revelation 

There are calls for Associate Health Minister Casey Costello to be stripped of her responsibility for managing smoke-free laws after documents emerged revealing she likened nicotine harm to caffeine.   

The documents obtained by RNZ show Costello also specifically asked for advice on pausing tax hikes on tobacco - in direct contradiction to what she has said for the past week.   

She was under fire in the House on Thursday afternoon, accused of parroting talking points from the tobacco industry in her notes to officials.   

The first term New Zealand First MP oversees Aotearoa's smoke-free laws and, in recent weeks, she has denied asking for specific advice on pausing tax increases.   

Costello said she asked for a range of advice, but there’s a smoking gun: notes the minister gave to officials which explicitly say under the heading of 'Smoking': "Freeze the excise rates on smoked tobacco for three years starting 31 December 2023."   

"This is a range of points and positions and it’s about five pages long," Costello said of the document given to officials.    

Despite the notes coming from Costello's office, she said she doesn’t know who wrote them.   

"I couldn’t tell you the author of that document, it’s in the document archives."   

Labour's health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall asked: "Do things in her office just appear out of thin air?"   

The Prime Minister was unaware and unwilling to cast judgment on Thursday morning.   

"I haven’t seen the stories. In fairness, I need to be able to have that before I have any further comment, but what I will say to you is, at the end of day, we increased [tobacco] excise tax," Christopher Luxon said.  

Costello also reportedly compared nicotine harm to a cup of coffee, with the notes saying nicotine is as harmful as caffeine but its association with smoking has seen the poorest punished by huge taxes.   

National's deputy Nicola Willis didn't think caffeine was as harmful as nicotine.   

ACT leader David Seymour said: "Nicotine often comes with tobacco which comes with a whole of tar and other things that are unhealthy. If you have too much creamer in your coffee, that could be unhealthy for you too."

Housing Minister Chris Bishop said: "They're both harmful, I am certainly addicted to caffeine, I’ve had four coffees today."   

Labour's calling for Costello's sacking.   

"I believe she is not fit to hold her associate minister portfolio in health and I call on Christopher Luxon to relieve her of her responsibilities."   

Public health Professor Janet Hoek said she hadn't seen any evidence that caffeine is killing 5000 New Zealanders - 13 a day.

She said she has seen the argument comparing nicotine to caffeine in documents attributed to tobacco companies.

"I think it would be not at all surprising if this was something they were trying to socialise."

Luxon said Costello was very determined to lower tobacco rates.    

The PM's political risk radar is going off, with him seeking assurances no one’s taking money from big tobacco.   

"My office spoke to the offices of the other parties, both parties came back and said they haven’t received donations from tobacco companies," he said.  

Trying to find out himself if the old saying, "where there’s smoke, there’s fire", rings true.