New Zealand’s new coalition government could be considering proposals to regulate tobacco products, as suggested by a document leaked to local press.
The document revealed that the associate health minister from the New Zealand First party, Casey Costello, proposed removing taxes from heated tobacco products (HTPs) and applying a three-year freeze on excise tax increases on combustible tobacco products.
It also referred to a range of advice Costello had sought from officials and that she had suggested increasing fines to crack down on youth vaping, including harsher penalties for selling to under-age consumers.
Costello denied reviewing the proposal and asking for advice, but the leaked document appears to contradict that.
ASH director weighs in
Commenting on the potential effects of removing the excise tax on HTPs, Ben Youdan, director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in New Zealand, confirmed that Costello’s party has always been clear on supporting harm reduction. He said New Zealand First wants to expand the range of reduced-harm alternatives available for adult smokers, including HTPs, which have been successful in some markets – notably in Japan – in shifting people away from traditional smoking products.
Youdan told TobaccoIntelligence that the country is making progress but still has higher rates of smoking among Māori people and more disadvantaged groups, although these rates are falling fast as smokers shift from tobacco to vaping.
He said that like other countries with permissive vape laws, New Zealand has seen bigger reductions in smoking among younger populations, while quitting rates are lower among older groups who have been smoking for longer. Youdan thinks HTPs may well serve a role for those who enjoy tobacco but could make that switch. “I think there is a place for it if we want to use harm reduction as a strategy,” he said, “and in a way that is empathetic to people who use tobacco, and do not like vaping.”
Youdan highlighted the importance of more independent findings on HTPs, “as much of it comes from industry studies, leaving it open to real and perceived bias”.
“However,” he added “there is reasonable certainty that they are less harmful than smoking, and if we want to walk the talk on harm proportionate regulation, then having them as a more affordable option for those who smoke and don’t like vaping makes sense.”
More study results, and the state of taxes
A study from Cochrane published in 2022, which referred to the acceleration of the decline in cigarette sales after the introduction of HTPs in Japan, explained that because data were observational, other factors could have possibly caused these changes. It said that drops in cigarette sales might not translate to declining smoking prevalence. The study concluded that time‐series studies were needed to clarify the impact of rising heated tobacco use on smoking prevalence.
According to a 2022 report in the Hong Kong Legislative Council research publication Essentials, Singapore and New Zealand had some of the lowest smoking rates in the developed world.
Between 2010 and 2020, the New Zealand government increased tobacco excise tax by inflation plus an additional 10% each year. In January 2020, New Zealand ended this, saying that the retail price for tobacco products was already high. Since then, tobacco excise has only been adjusted for inflation.
As of 1st January 2024, heated tobacco is taxed under the “other tobacco” category at NZD1,555.23 (USD955) per kg.
The Ministry of Health has sent a reminder that it will provide more clarity regarding the annual sales return process for HTPs due by 31st January each year. The ministry does not expect annual returns to be completed for the 2023 calendar until further advice is provided. The advice is expected to be published before the end of March.
The centre-right National Party won the largest share of votes in New Zealand’s general election in October 2023 and reached an agreement with right-wing ACT New Zealand and the populist New Zealand First parties to form a majority government.
– Tracey Cheung TobaccoIntelligence staff
Photo: Michal Klajban