As the New Zealand government prepares to give passage to world-leading plans to ban future generations from being able to purchase cigarettes, local tobacco-control experts are watching on with envy. Now, they suggest, is Australia’s opportunity to follow suit.
In December last year, New Zealand’s associate health minister, Dr Ayesha Verrall, announced in parliament that older smokers around the country would only be able to get their hands on tobacco products with low levels of nicotine. By 2025, the government hopes less than 5 percent of the nation’s population will be smoking.
The comments made by Verrall are just one piece of an expansive plan set in motion by the New Zealand government to move on “endgame” tobacco legislation. It is a campaign that has been grinding away for the last 10 years.
On Tuesday, things came even closer, when the Ardern government introduced new legislation that would prevent future generations from ever purchasing a cigarette.
If that bill passes, as it’s expected to, access to run-of-the-mill tobacco products would be stifled exponentially. The laws would see nicotine levels limited to 0.4 milligrams per gram of tobacco, along with the removal of cigarettes from roughly 95 percent of the retail outlets currently carrying them.
Most strikingly, however: Anyone born in the year 2009, or later, would never be allowed to purchase tobacco products legally. Ever.
Now, advocates in Australia say local policymakers have an opportunity to do the same.
Like New Zealand, Australia’s smoking rate—which accounts for just 10.7 percent of the population—sits among the lowest in the world. What each nation has in common, though, are lethally high rates of smoking among Indigenous populations.
Becky Freeman, a tobacco-control expert at the University of Sydney, said Australia’s grip on tobacco has loosened markedly over the last decade. Since becoming the first jurisdiction around the world to roll out plain-packaged cigarettes, she said Australian legislators have continued to just “float along” on the issue.
“Why wait for New Zealand to do this?,” she said. “That is not the Australia-New Zealand battle spirit, is it?”
In Australia, tobacco-related disease is reported to kill more than a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the country. Across the Tasman, the current Māori smoking rate is 22.3 percent, while in 2020 nearly a quarter of all Māori deaths were linked to smoking.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Aboriginal social justice campaigner Tom Calma welcomed New Zealand’s perseverance on the issue, and suggested the approach seen here in Australia left a lot to be desired.
Key to New Zealand’s success on the bill, according to experts, has been the way government leaders have enlisted the support of Māori public health and political leaders.
In Australia, the same level of involvement could yet be a way off, though, as First Nations Australians continue to fight for the most basic of reparations, which as recently as this week have been received with sneers at the highest levels of federal government.
Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist who worked on the research team who consulted on the bill currently before New Zealand parliament, said that without Māori leadership and consent, the whole thing would be prone to “backfire”.
“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that in Australia, this would be a really important policy for reducing the Indigenous and non-Indigenous gaps in health,” he said.
As it stands, Australia’s National Preventive Health Strategy has a comparatively modest approach to putting downward pressure on smoking rates. By 2030, the aim is to have less than 5 percent of the Australian population smoking, and 27 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult population.
In its submission to the government’s consultation on the Plan, back in the middle of 2018, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress suggested that progress on tackling rates of smoking were “uneven”, and that a failure to reduce smoking rates in remote Australia were of “particular concern”.
At the time, they wanted to see federal health ministers stonewall tobacco industry involvement in the government’s approach to smoking, and ensure that whole-of-population tobacco control programs came to play a role in motivating Aboriginal people to quit.
Since then, though, experts have described the government’s efforts as “absolute complacency”.