Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says he was not trying to mislead the public when claiming Labour’s smokefree laws would see just one store in Northland selling tobacco, despite the true figure being 35.
In defending the new government’s decision to scrap Labour’s smokefree policies, Luxon this week said that plan would have seen only one store being able to sell tobacco products in all of Northland and it would become a target for crime.
Official documents published by the director-general of health stated there would instead have been 35, including 17 in town and city centres and 18 in rural areas.
“We think it’s wrong, for example, to have a single store in Northland as a target for crime and ram raids, and for gangs and to ultimately drive into a bigger black market,” Luxon said during the post-Cabinet press conference last Wednesday.
Leader of the House and senior minister Chris Bishop then repeated the line this morning in an interview with Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q+A, despite Tame pointing out multiple times that official documents stated there would be 35.
“There’d be one store in Northland, that’s my understanding, yes,” Bishop said.
Luxon this afternoon admitted the government had got its numbers wrong.
“We got that wrong,” Luxon said.
“We didn’t express it the way that we should have, which is that there will be towns across Northland, across New Zealand that only have one or two retail outlets in them.
“And [in] those towns that will become a massive magnet for crime, and obviously continue to drive the black market.”
— Q+A (@NZQandA) December 2, 2023
He said they were not trying to mislead and simply “expressed it incorrectly”.
Labour’s health spokeswoman and former health minister Ayesha Verrall, who was behind the policy, told the Herald the government needed to “debate the facts”.
“The government has been caught misleading the public to justify repealing smokefree laws.
“Ministers need to debate the facts rather than using tobacco industry talking points to cast doubt on the effects of the laws.
“The fact is these laws are well researched and would save 8000 lives over 20 years.”
Verrall has also criticised claims of an inflated black market, which have been promoted by the tobacco industry but heavily disputed by health experts.
The latest survey commissioned by Imperial Brands Australasia showed while the proportion of tobacco smoked sourced through the black market had increased – from 11.5 percent in 2019 to 12.1 percent in 2022 – total illicit tobacco consumption had decreased by 27 percent from 230 tonnes to 167 tonnes.
Labour’s smokefree laws would have dramatically reduced the number outlets selling tobacco products from about 6000 to about 600 across the country (from July next year), created a “smokefree generation” by banning people born after 2009 from ever buying tobacco (from 2027) and dramatically reduced nicotine levels (from April 2025) – the latter two of which were both the first time any country had introduced those initiatives.
It was part of the country’s longstanding Smokefree 2025 target, set by a National-led government in 2011, to have the adult smoking rate drop below 5 percent.
Without the new policies, daily smoking rates were estimated to only reduce to 8.1 percent of non-Māori and 20 percent for Māori by 2025. Māori are not projected to reach the 5 percent target until 2061 based on current policies.
About 5000 New Zealanders die every year from a smoking-related illness, the Regulatory Impact Statement on the law change said, with disproportionate impacts on Māori and Pasifika peoples, with billions of dollars in health costs.
As part of its coalition deal with Act and NZ First, National agreed to repeal Labour’s legislation before March next year.
NZ First had campaigned on scrapping the laws, while Act had included the tobacco tax revenue gains in its Alternative Budget.
Both Act and National voted against the law last year, though National had said it supported some of the measures.
Finance Minister Nicola Willis acknowledged that money saved by the scrapping of the smokefree laws would be used to help fund tax cuts.
New Minister of Health Dr Shane Reti told the Herald this week the government was still committed to “improving” smoking rates in New Zealand, and its belief was that vaping would be the “primary mechanism” to achieve that.
Asked about his previous support for denicotinisation, Reti deferred and said they would be looking at briefings and advice from officials before deciding on any other “tools”.
Reti had also previously raised concerns about the commercial impacts on retailers, along with potential for increased crime.
* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.