Guest Post: TIME FOR A RE-THINK ON TOBACCO

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It seems is so last-year, particularly with the overwhelming public health focus now on addressing global obesity issues.

For years, if not decades, tobacco control advocates successfully moved the dial against tobacco products, heralding in restriction after restriction. Virtually all the boxes on the tobacco control to-do list have been ticked off, including the holy grail of plain-packaging.

Governments meanwhile, have not only been happy to introduce changes to the Smokefree Environments Act – on average every seven years or so, but perhaps more tellingly, have quietly sat back and collected more than NZ$1.7 billion in excise revenue year after year from the sale of tobacco products.

But there’s now a glitch in all of this, and its reverberations are starting to crumble the status quo.

The annual excise increase, so eagerly awaited by tobacco control proponents, is fueling what seems to be a daily, if not weekly occurrence of aggravated robberies against dairies, convenience stores and service stations around the country. These robberies are often violent, and wreak havoc on these small retailers businesses.

ACT leader David Seymour is regularly tweeting about these incidents, and has called on the Police to track tobacco theft, saying ‘tobacco related robberies have become a cottage industry and a threat to public safety’.

Seymour says that ‘tobacco taxes have more than doubled in the past five years’ and ‘it’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt or worse’. Amazingly, the Police don’t record information on the rates of tobacco-related burglary.

Further to this  comments about a flourishing black-market in tobacco products continue to gain traction. Even Customs Minister Nicky Wagner recognises it saying, ‘the black market for tobacco will likely grow as the price of cigarettes increases and officials are “watching it very closely”’.

There would be few, if any, that would say increased excised rates have not reduced smoking rates in New Zealand. But is this view now slightly changing?

Take End Smoking New Zealand, a group that includes some of New Zealand’s leading and most respected tobacco control figures. They have just issued a media release saying:

‘Manufacturer’s returns to the Ministry of Health released on 3 March show that tobacco consumption per adult decreased by 2.4% in 2016 compared with 2015. This is much less than the average annual decrease of 5% per year from 2011 to 2015. This 2.4% decrease was equal to the increase in adult population over the past year.’

In other words, it looks like tobacco excise increases may have run their course and lost their efficacy.

This then makes the call by tobacco giant Philip Morris to ‘tax its cigarettes more as a bid to move to a “smoke-free future”’ even more interesting. While this suggestion was made in the UK, there is no reason to believe it would not be supported by their company here in New Zealand.

With tobacco excise rates already among the highest in the world, retailers are likely to be alarmed at the prospect of a tobacco company calling for yet more increases on tobacco when they are at the coal-face of unintended consequences.

None the less, it is a cunning move by Philip Morris and draws further attention to how the world is changing as more and more people look towards electronic cigarettes to reduce their harm from combustible tobacco products.

Right now the Government is sitting on a Report from the Ministry of Health following a consultation last year into policy options for the regulation of electronic cigarettes. For once you have both public health researchers and vaping organisations on the same page supporting the Government’s intention to legalise electronic cigarettes and e-liquids that contain nicotine.

This unprecedented support by two vastly different groups further demonstrates how the ‘tobacco debate’ has moved on from years of acrimonious arguments.

It also shows an opportunity that should not be lost, particularly as the issue of harm-reduction starts to take centre-stage around the world.

Disclosure: Carrick Graham was Corporate & Regulatory Affairs Director for BAT NZ for four years until 2006. He has since founded and managed several public affairs firms, and now runs GMS Management, a company that provides research, analysis and regulatory insights.

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