New Zealand on Tuesday passed extensive legislation aimed at preventing minors from becoming smokers, including a lifetime prohibition on cigarette sales to everyone born after 2008.
Under the new laws, which take effect next year, the country’s smoking age of 18 would be raised year by year until it applied to the whole population. Beginning in 2023, those under 15 would be barred from buying cigarettes for the rest of their lives.
The legislation is the result of more than a decade of public health campaigns. In 2011, New Zealand first announced its plans to reduce smoking levels to below 5 percent of the population by 2025, a target extending across all ethnic groups, including Indigenous Maori and Pacific Island citizens. Over the years, the price of cigarettes has been hiked to among the highest in the world, with a pack of cigarettes costing about $20.
With these measures, smoking has declined overall. The national smoking rate for adults has halved in the past decade. Only 8 percent of New Zealand’s adult population smoked every day in 2022, according to government statistics.
“This legislation accelerates progress towards a smoke-free future,” the country’s associate health minister, Ayesha Verrall, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Thousands of people will live longer, healthier lives.”
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By the end of next year, 90 percent of the country’s 6,000 tobacco retailers will have lost their licenses. Nicotine levels in tobacco and vaping products must be significantly reduced under the new laws, rendering them less addictive. Violators of the new rules could be fined up to 150,000 New Zealand dollars, or roughly $96,000.
Antismoking advocates have emphasized the need to engage Maori and Pacific Island communities, who were first introduced to tobacco after European settlers in the late 1700s used the addictive substance to trade goods. About a quarter of Maori adults smoked every day, beginning at age 14, according to government statistics. They also suffered at higher rates from diseases related to smoking, compared with other ethnic groups.
Catherine Manning, a manager at the Takiri Mai te Ata Regional Stop Smoking Service, said that Indigenous communities should be engaged and supported in programs that can help them quit.
“It is our whānau, hapū and iwi who’ve disproportionately shouldered the burden of this destructive substance,” she said in a statement released by Health Coalition Aotearoa, using the Maori words for extended family, clan and nation.
Communities need adequate resources to help people quit, the statement continued.
The new laws had critics among far-right lawmakers, who argued that the ban would fuel a black market and impact the livelihood of convenience-store owners who sell cigarettes.
“This will drive up the trade of black-market tobacco with high nicotine, driving those addicted to cigarettes to turn to crime to feed their habit,” Brooke van Velden, deputy leader of the ACT Party, wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “The gangs will be rubbing their hands with glee.”
The government had earlier acknowledged that, despite the public health benefits, the new legislation could contribute to increased smuggling by organized-crime groups. Experts said that imports to the country could be more carefully scrutinized as a solution.
New Zealand is not the first country introducing laws aimed at dramatically reducing smoking. In 2004, Ireland first banned indoor smoking in pubs and workplaces and on public transport, prompting dozens of countries — including Brazil, Norway and Uganda — to introduce similar laws. Bhutan banned cigarette sales altogether in 2005 but reversed the restriction in 2020, when officials worried that traffickers would fuel outbreaks of the coronavirus.