The government of New Zealand, where nearly 1 in 4 adults use cigarettes, made a commitment this week to try to make the country smoke-free in 14 years.
Anti-smoking campaigners said they do not envisage prohibition or making it illegal to smoke but creation of an environment where the practice is virtually extinct.
Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, a member of the indigenous Maori ethnic group, which is the country’s biggest user of tobacco, hailed the government’s announcement as a landmark moment in the fight against tobacco’s “long shadow of death and disease that has touched almost every household in New Zealand.” “It is about us asserting our own identity as a nation and defining for ourselves the role tobacco is allowed to play in the life of this country,” she said. “This is not something we are just going to leave in the hands of the tobacco industry.” According to the Health Ministry, 45 per cent of Maoris smoke, and Maori members of parliament have led the drive against tobacco, calling for moves to declare the nation smoke-free by 2025 after an exhaustive inquiry last year.
Prime Minister John Key’s centre-right government approved the target, even though he has said publicly that it would be “extremely difficult” to implement.
He said government policy was to keep increasing the price of cigarettes and tobacco, which had proved to be a deterrent for the 15 to 19-year-olds who comprise the biggest single group of smokers.
Tobacco maintains a grip on teens and particularly Maoris, who account for about 15 per cent of the population, despite a series of law changes designed to restrict smoking, which officials said kills 5,000 New Zealanders annually.
Smoking was banned in all workplaces, including cafes, bars and restaurants, in December 2004, and cigarette manufacturers were made to put graphic depictions of the diseases it can cause on their packets three years ago.
The government has announced it would make it illegal for shops to display cigarettes and tobacco later this year, forcing the products under the counter.
“There is still so much to be done, but I’m more confident than ever that we can reach the goal of New Zealand being a nation free of tobacco,” Turia said.
“New Zealand could lead the world by committing to be a smoke-free country by 2025,” said Dalton Kelly, chief executive of the Cancer Society. But there were doubts about what exactly smoke-free would mean.
A vocal and active lobby group, the SmokeFree Coalition, said prohibition, or making it illegal to smoke, has never been its goal.
“What it does mean is that smoking rates of prevalence, consumption and uptake will be reduced as close to zero as possible through the collective efforts of the government and tobacco control community working with the government to make it a reality,” it said.
It suggested a comprehensive campaign to promote smoke-free living combined with government measures to reduce the supply of tobacco, regulate its market movements, price it out of its target consumer’s budget allowance and fund sustainable and growing cessation services and products.