The New Zealand government’s plan to progressively outlaw cigarette sales, raising the legal smoking age year by year, is a revolutionary move towards a smoke-free society. In addition to making sure the generation that is now 14 and under will never be able to legally buy tobacco, New Zealand will also cut the amount of nicotine in the cigarettes older people will still be able to buy, in the hopes of pushing more adult smokers to quit the habit.
The law, which notably makes a vital distinction between e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products, seeks to particularly improve public health outcomes for M?ori and Pasifika populations, among whom smoking rates are much higher than the national average.
Progressive ban seeks to form smoke-free generation
The New Zealand government announced last week that they will go ahead with their innovative plan to cut down smoking by banning anyone aged 14 and under when the law comes into force from ever legally buying cigarettes. The progressive legislation, which has been under public discussion in the Pacific nation since April, seeks to drive New Zealand’s smoking rates below 5% by 2025.
The novel mechanism consists of an ever-increasing age limit for buying tobacco products. Described by public health officials as a “cutting edge” effort, the law avoids the pitfalls of other prohibitions by not incriminating the user, but rather making it illegal for vendors to provide tobacco to anyone born after 2008.
The new legislation hopes to piggyback off of already-successful anti-smoking efforts in New Zealand: smoking has declined consistently among New Zealanders in recent years, with 11.6% of the adult population describing themselves as regular smokers in 2018, compared to 18% a decade earlier. But the numbers are much higher among the country’s M?ori and Pasifika communities, where smoking rates stand at 29% and 18%, respectively. The government hopes the novel ban will ameliorate smoking-related health problems for the native population within a generation.
Consultations between the creators of the law and a M?ori health task force are expected to take place in the following months. Following those discussions, the government wants to bring the law in front of Parliament in June of next year and, given approval from the legislature, to implement it by the end of 2022.
Plan hinges on key distinctions
The new law is not without its critics, with some voicing concerns that it will affect poor smokers more than it will rich ones, but it has mostly been received enthusiastically by the New Zealand public, as well as the country’s medical community.
The policies being put in place by New Zealand will not only steadily increase the age limit for buying tobacco products, but will also reduce the amount of nicotine in products that are legally sold. According to recent studies, reduced nicotine intake makes it easier and more likely for smokers to quit, making this change arguably as meaningful as the age ban.
Just as importantly, New Zealand’s laws clearly distinguish between combustible tobacco products and e-cigarettes, which have been embraced both in New Zealand and in countries like the UK as a drastically less harmful alternative which can help smokers reduce the health risks of their nicotine habit. In doing so, the lawmakers are refreshingly allowing science rather than preconceptions to dictate policy.
Despite numerous studies showing e-cigarettes to be considerably less harmful than traditional tobacco products, half of all Americans and a third of Brits consider them to be equally as damaging to the user’s health. The situation is even more concerning in Europe, where surveys have revealed widespread ignorance about the relative risks of e-cigarettes and combustible tobacco products, with as much as 59% of Europeans incorrectly believing that vaping is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking, a misapprehension which flies in the face of the available scientific evidence and could make it far harder for European policymakers to achieve their goal of a tobacco-free generation by 2040.
Pragmatic approach to alternatives
Indeed, despite the alarmingly high levels of traditional smoking across the continent, European policymakers have been slow to embrace a harm-reduction approach and have remained unnecessarily suspicious of e-cigarettes. Rather than encouraging e-cigarette use as a healthier alternative to smoking, countries like the Netherlands have moved to restrict the products’ appeal by proposing measures such as a ban on the flavoured e-liquids which help many smokers switch to vaping.
While policymakers have tried to justify these restrictions as necessary to protect youth, the evidence instead suggests that measures like e-cigarette flavour bans are counterproductive, instead leading young people to smoke more conventional cigarettes at great risk to their health. The same restrictions could drive thousands of adult smokers back to cigarettes—a key factor underpinning the fact that New Zealand’s new curbs on smoking don’t apply to vaping, which the law recognised is much less harmful than smoking and can help people quit smoking.
“Ultimately, tobacco is one of the deadliest substances that people can take”, New Zealand Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall explained when discussing the new legislation. “Vapes do not have the harms associated with them, and that’s why we’re taking a risk-proportionate approach to these choices”.
New Zealand is certainly taking a gamble with its new smoking legislation. By its own admission, the government anticipates the risk of increased black market activity in the country following the ban and has set out provisions for this eventuality. But the ambitious goal of becoming a smoke-free country within a generation is well worth the risks involved. If New Zealand’s legislation turns out to be a success, it could provide a template for other countries across the planet and mark the first step towards consigning cigarettes to the ashtray of history.
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