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In a move that has sent shockwaves across the globe, New Zealand’s new coalition government has decided to repeal the ambitious Smoke-free NZ legislation including de-nicotisation of cigarettes, a reduction in retailers and banning cigarettes for those born after 2008. The move is all the more surprising as Dr Shane Reti, the incoming Minister of Health, has previously been a strong supporter for de-nicotisation.

The decision to allow the continued sale of tobacco products beyond this date has elicited mixed reactions, with jubilation from Indian dairy owners, and disappointment from health organisations, Maori groups and the international community. While the reversal may provide a temporary reprieve for some businesses, it calls into question NZ’s commitment to public health and its standing as a global leader in anti-smoking initiatives.

On one hand, the decision brings relief to a significant portion of NZ’s dairy owners, who are predominantly of Indian origin. These small businesses have long argued that a ban on tobacco sales would deal a severe blow to their livelihoods. For many dairies, tobacco products constitute a substantial portion of their sales, acting as a key driver for other purchases within their stores. The fears of these business owners were not unfounded, as a sudden ban on tobacco that would have severely limited the number of outlets where they could be sold could have led to financial hardships and, in many cases, forced closures.

However, the elation felt by the dairy owners must be weighed against the broader implications of this decision. NZ had been hailed globally for its commitment to becoming smoke-free by 2025, a goal that had inspired other nations, including the United Kingdom, to follow suit. The reversal of this legislation not only tarnishes NZ’s image as a pioneer in the fight against smoking but also risks undermining the efforts of other countries striving to curb the harmful effects of tobacco.

One of the primary arguments against the decision centres on public health. Smoking remains one of the leading causes of preventable diseases and premature deaths worldwide. By backtracking on the commitment to a smoke-free nation, NZ’s new government is sending a message that economic interests may take precedence over the well-being of its citizens. The potential increase in smoking-related illnesses and healthcare costs cannot be ignored, making this decision appear short-sighted and contradictory to the principles of good governance.

The repeal is poised to result in the loss of thousands of lives, with the most pronounced impact expected on Maori communities, where smoking rates are the highest at 19 per cent. According to recent modelling, the full implementation of smoke free regulations would lead to a savings of $1.3 billion in health system costs over the next two decades. Additionally, it is projected to bring about a 22 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality rates for women and a nine percent decrease for men.

The move contradicts the global trend towards tobacco control and could embolden other nations to reconsider their anti-smoking initiatives. The international community had looked to NZ as a model for progressive policymaking in public health, and this abrupt change of course may erode trust and cooperation in the global fight against smoking.

While the dairy owners may celebrate the decision as a victory for their businesses, it is essential to consider alternative revenue streams and long-term sustainability. The government should actively support these small businesses in transitioning away from reliance on tobacco sales, encouraging diversification and innovation. This could involve financial assistance, training programmes, and incentives to help dairies thrive without contributing to the sale of harmful products.

The overturning of the Smoke-free NZ legislation is a complex issue with competing interests. The relief felt by dairy owners must be balanced against the potential harm to public health and the global reputation of NZ as a trailblazer in the fight against smoking.

The new government must navigate a delicate path, addressing the concerns of small businesses while reaffirming its commitment to the well-being of its citizens and maintaining its leadership role in global health initiatives. A strategic and comprehensive approach is necessary to mitigate the risks associated with this reversal and ensure a healthier and more prosperous future for all New Zealanders.