New Zealand Does About-Face on Plans To Impose Tobacco Prohibition

  • November 28, 2023
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Jeffrey A. Singer

New Zealand’s newly‐​elected center‐​right government announced yesterday that it intends to scrap a planned phase‐​in of tobacco prohibition that would ban sales of tobacco products to people born after 2009. The plan would have also cut the number of retailers permitted to legally sell tobacco by 90 percent and ordered tobacco makers to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes they may sell. Anyone versed in the economics of prohibition would have predicted that each of those three measures would help fuel a vibrant black market with its corresponding violent crime and corruption.

This is good news for New Zealanders, where less than 14 percent of persons over age 15 smoked tobacco in 2020. They will avoid yet another state encroachment on their personal liberty along with tax increases to fund government spending on enforcing tobacco prohibition and fighting tobacco smugglers.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should take notice. Last month, his government announced plans to clone New Zealand’s tobacco prohibition plan. Announcing his plan at Britain’s Conservative Party Conference, Sunak said, “A 14‐​year‐​old today will never legally be sold a cigarette.”

Sunak’s announcement came as both a surprise and a disappointment to tobacco harm reduction advocates, given the UK’s heretofore reasonable approach to reducing tobacco smoking. While nicotine is the addictive component of tobacco smoke, it is a relatively harmless stimulant, not very different from caffeine, as Scotland’s NHS Informs has stated. The other components of tobacco smoke are what produce harm to health.

The UK’s Royal Society of Public Health claims nicotine is “no more harmful to health than caffeine.” Public Health England has claimed that “vaping” with nicotine e‑cigarettes is “95 percent less harmful than tobacco smoking.” The Royal College of Physicians has issued the following statement:

[T]he available evidence to date indicates that e‑cigarettes are being used almost exclusively as safer alternatives to smoked tobacco, by confirmed smokers who are trying to reduce harm to themselves or others from smoking, or to quit smoking completely.
There is a need for regulation to reduce direct and indirect adverse effects of e‑cigarette use, but this regulation should not be allowed significantly to inhibit the development and use of harm‐​reduction products by smokers.
However, in the interests of public health it is important to promote the use of e‑cigarettes, NRT [nicotine replacement therapy] and other non‐​tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible as a substitute for smoking in the UK.

So far, Brookline, Massachusetts is the only jurisdiction in the United States to have enacted a tobacco ban. Brookline bans the sale of tobacco to anyone born after the year 2000. It doesn’t take an entrepreneurial genius to figure out ways to make money legally selling cigarettes to adults from the other side of the Brookline town line.

Earlier this year, California lawmakers considered making the Golden State the first in the nation to enact New Zealand’s tobacco prohibition model into law. A bill to that effect failed to advance during this year’s legislative session. Interestingly, California’s major anti‐​smoking and anti‐​vaping groups chose not to lobby for the bill. A Cal Matters report quoted Autumn Ogden‐​Smith, director of California state legislation for the American Cancer Society Action Network, saying, “This is not the time to tackle this. We’re trying to do the clean‐​up on the flavored tobacco ban. We’re having enforcement issues.”

As I wrote here, banning menthol tobacco creates its own set of harmful unintended consequences.

New Zealand’s recent about‐​face on tobacco prohibition will hopefully put to rest similar efforts in California and other states. Let’s hope it will also cause Sunak and his Conservative Party to reconsider their plans. The UK had the right approach to reducing tobacco smoking until now: opting for evidence‐​based tobacco harm reduction instead of prohibition.