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New Zealand plans to outlaw tobacco sales to citizens born after 2008

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n3057 (Published 10 December 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:n3057
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

New Zealand will become the first country in the world to implement a “tobacco-free generation” policy, its government has announced, by banning all sales of tobacco from next year to anyone born after 2008.

The legislation is expected to pass next year, and when it does anyone not yet aged 14 will become ineligible for the rest of their lives to buy tobacco in New Zealand.

“As they age, they and future generations will never be legally able to purchase tobacco,” announced associate minister of health Ayesha Verrall, who is a physician and tuberculosis expert. “Because the truth is, there is no safe age to start smoking.”

No adults will actually be turned away from tobacco stores until 2026, when the oldest of the tobacco-free generation turn 18. But from 2024 the number of shops allowed to sell tobacco products will be cut from at least 8000 to about 500. From 2025 only tobacco products that are very low in nicotine will be allowed. Vaping will not be affected by the new laws.

Currently, 11.6% of New Zealanders smoke daily, down from 17% in 2011, when the government announced its Smokefree New Zealand goal of 5% by 2025. Some demographic groups are on course to meet this target, but rates remain much higher among Māori and Pasifika peoples, reaching 32% among Māori women.1

“While smoking rates are heading in the right direction, we need to do more, faster to reach our goal,” said Verrall. “If nothing changes, it would be decades before Māori smoking rates fall below 5%, and this government is not prepared to leave anyone behind.”

Tobacco taxes soared under the Smokefree New Zealand plan. At about $NZ30 (£15; €18; $US20) a pack, cigarettes are now more expensive in New Zealand than any other country except Australia.

“We’ve already seen the full impact of excise tax increases,” said Verrall. “Going further will not help people quit. It will only further punish smokers who are struggling to kick the habit.”

Like many countries that have sharply raised tobacco prices, New Zealand has seen a black market develop that now accounts for about 10% of cigarettes sold there. In its action plan the government acknowledged that the new policy could further increase smuggling and black market sales.2

The idea of banning a whole generation from buying tobacco was first proposed in 2013 by the Australian mathematician Jon Berrick, who argued in the journal Tobacco Control that laws allowing tobacco purchase from age 18 effectively make smoking a rite of adult passage and wrongly imply that it is less harmful to adults.3

Tobacco-free generation policies have political appeal, as when they are passed those affected are too young to vote. But they may lead to awkward scenarios for future governments. In 2050 New Zealand will be banning 41 year olds from buying tobacco but not 42 year olds.

In 2017 Russia's health ministry proposed a tobacco-free generation plan that would begin with those turning 18 in 2033.4 The plan seemed to have the backing of Russia’s famously antismoking president, but in a country with far more smokers than New Zealand it was ultimately shelved.

Only two jurisdictions have yet actually turned away adult buyers under a tobacco-free generation policy. Balanga City in the Philippines has long been a pioneer in antismoking measures and imposed its tobacco-free generation “end game” policy in 2016 on all people born after 2000.5 The scheme was therefore turning away adults by 2018, but by then an industry group, the Philippine Tobacco Institute, had taken the city to court. Several of Balanga City’s antismoking measures were overturned by the Court of Appeals in 2019. The lawsuit on the tobacco-free generation plan has not concluded.

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, adopted a similar law this July. It too bans tobacco sales to anyone born this century.

The ultimate step in tobacco control, banning all sales to everybody, has been taken by only one country, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. But the ban, implemented in 2010, was abandoned last year amid fears that tobacco smugglers would bring in the coronavirus.

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