New Zealand’s decision to phase out the sale of tobacco completely won’t hurt an industry that’s still doing quite well, thank you.
The ratio of the number of smokers to the population is decreasing all over the world. Even low- and low-income countries, which now have the highest number of smokers, are seeing a decline in tobacco consumption.
That does not prevent the giants of the industry from cashing in juicy profits at the expense of the health of their customers. British American Tobacco (BAT), which owns brands like Rothman’s and Lucky Strike, reported 2021 revenue up 6.9% and profits over £11 billion (US13 billion), an increase of 5 .2% over one year. Like all other cigarette manufacturers, BAT has made a shift towards products considered (for the moment) less harmful, and also towards cannabis, which allows it to say that it is fighting for a smoke-free world. The fact remains that the majority of its income and profits still come from good old tobacco.
Tobacco is no longer the goldmine it once was for businesses that make a living from it, but it’s still good business, to say the least.
While tobacco consumption is down, one in four adults worldwide still smokes cigarettes. These smokers are mainly found in Asia, where a proportion of 40% or more of the population uses tobacco. Europe also still has a high proportion of smokers. In France, for example, 33% of the population aged 15 and over smoke1.
By comparison, New Zealand’s tobacco problem is less acute. Consumption is steadily declining and the proportion of smokers stands at 8%, about the same as in Canada.
The country has set itself the goal of reducing tobacco use by 2025 to less than 5%. From 2023, when the law that has just been enacted will be in force, the sale of cigarettes to young people aged 15 and under will be prohibited and for the rest of their lives they will be legally prohibited from accessing tobacco. The legal smoking age, currently set at 18, will be raised each year. The number of tobacco outlets will drop from 6,000 to 600 by the end of next year, a reduction of 90%.
This is truly a revolution in the ways governments around the world are taking to reduce tobacco use.
Black market or death market
The fear of leaving tobacco to the black market and organized crime is always the bogeyman raised when it comes to reducing tobacco use. Similarly, voices are inevitably raised to defend the jobs that depend on it, in factories and in businesses.
It’s no different in New Zealand. The government has chosen to risk these disadvantages and prioritize the health benefits for its population of 5 million. “There is no good reason to allow the sale of a product that kills half of those who use it,” retorted the New Zealand government’s health minister, Ayesha Verrall, whose remarks been reported in the media.
These kinds of hackneyed arguments can no longer justify inaction in the face of the millions of tobacco victims.
The country will save billions of dollars in health care costs by eliminating tobacco use, the New Zealand government estimates.
As health care costs soar, New Zealand’s example should spur other countries to do more to eradicate tobacco.
We could at least start by increasing the price of cigarettes, a measure that has proven its worth. In New Zealand, cigarettes cost twice as much as in Canada, around $20 a pack. It seems that on this side of the world, raising tobacco taxes is no longer seen as an effective way to reduce tobacco consumption.
Despite steady progress, quitting smoking is not for the future. Neither in New Zealand nor elsewhere. And with tobacco companies developing all kinds of new nicotine products whose health effects remain unknown and which are gaining a huge following among young people, the fight is not about to end.