Choking smoking makes progress

The last 12 months have seen unprecedented progress in our efforts to achieve tobacco control, in the interests of the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

Just over a year ago, the Maori Affairs Select Committee announced it would carry out an inquiry into the tobacco industry and in particular the consequences of tobacco use for Maori.

In March we initiated a public consultation on a proposal to ban tobacco displays in retail outlets.

In April results from the 2009 tobacco use survey showed that the current smoking rates for 15-64 year olds had dropped to 21.8%, down 2.1% from the 2008 rate. In real numbers that’s about 60,000 fewer smokers. Then there’s the youth smoking rate which dropped from 20.8% in 2008 to 18% a year later. These are fantastic results which demonstrate that people are starting to recognise the serious harms that come from smoking and saying that it’s just not worth it.

In April this year Parliament passed my legislation to increase tobacco excise with an overwhelming cross-party majority of 118 votes to four. Political support right across the floor emphasized to me the political willingness that I believe reflects public support for dealing with the harm caused by tobacco.

The excise tax increases were really significant. First off, we equalised the tax on loose tobacco to match tailor-made cigarettes. Basically this was about ensuring no matter what type of tobacco smoked, the smoker would face the same incentive to quit.

Then we raised the tax on all tobacco products by ten percent. For roll-your-own-tobacco that had an effect of an immediate increase by more than 25%. But that wasn’t all the legislation passed that night included another ten percent rise in January 2011 and then another ten percent in 2012.

The best news of all is that the number of smokers registered with Quitline almost doubled in the month after the increases came into effect.

If a quarter of the 4000 extra quit attempts are successful that will mean 1000 less smokers; 500 lives saved; and giving back to Aotearoa 7500 years of life that might otherwise have been lost to early deaths through smoking.

But we haven’t just stopped at tax and access to pharmaceuticals to support smoking cessation continues to grow.

Nicotine replacement therapy has been made much cheaper and it’s now just three dollars for a two month supply of patches, gum or lozenge compared to twenty dollars prior to the change. It’s also been easier to access through a prescription from a Doctor.

And of course, two weeks ago Pfizer and Pharmac announced that Champix would be fully subsidised via prescription and as another tool in our toolkit to help smokers quit.

Last week, I was delighted to announce that my proposal to remove tobacco displays from the retail environment has been approved by Cabinet. The elation of the 300 strong audience at the National Tobacco Control conference and their spontaneous applause is an indication to me, that the goal of becoming a smokefree nation is becoming that much closer.

The Government has also decided to bring in a package of new and improved controls on the way tobacco products are sold in New Zealand to support the remove of retail displays, including:

-Better enforcement of the law preventing tobacco products being sold to people under 18 years of age by issuing infringement notices much like speeding tickets instead of lengthy and costly court processes;

-Tightening controls of the display of retailer trading names to prevent these being used to effectively advertise tobacco for sale

-Making other changes to existing regulations covering the display and signage requirements for tobacco products to bring these into alignment with the removal of retail tobacco products

-Clarifying that any contracts and agreements covering trade rebates and discounts for selling tobacco which are inconsistent with the Smokefree Environments Act are legally void.

The Government has also decided to monitor progress on Australia’s proposal to legislate for plain packaging of tobacco products by 2012 and explore the option of New Zealand making similar moves in alignment with Australia.

These are big announcements, but there is still a lot more to do. I am absolutely committed to reducing tobacco related harms and the massive health inequalities that smoking brings and I know that we have to confront the challenge in many different ways if we are to sustain the change we need.

Nevertheless, it has been a real thrill to make the progress that we have, and I’m more confident than ever that we can reach the goal of New Zealand being a nation free of tobacco.