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Government staying mum on more smoking tax hikes

Smoker Liam Rusco, 19, says skyrocketing prices for smokes – boosted the pointlessness of the habit – had made him cut down with an eye to quitting.

Smoking is more expensive than ever but it won’t be enough to wean New Zealanders off the habit, smokefree groups say.

The last of four 10 per cent annual tobacco tax hikes came into effect on Friday, meaning a pack of cigarettes that cost $20 on Thursday will now set you back $22. (HK$ 117)

However, anti-smoking groups say quitting rates have slowed and New Zealand is drifting way off course in the quest to be smokefree by 2025.

“We’ve seen the impact of these increases on price lessen year after year as the tobacco industry learns how to adjust its pricing across its brand,” Smokefree Coalition executive director Dr Prudence Stone said in the lead-up to the hikes in December.

Stone said the tobacco tax increases were losing momentum, and the sector did not have the health promotion resources it needed to encourage more smokers to quit.

“We predict registrations to the Quitline this New Year will be what they were in 2010, before excise increases were introduced.”

Wellington smoker Liam Rusco, 19, has cut down from about seven cigarettes a day to about three with the aim of quitting outright.

Skyrocketing prices had played a part in him cutting back but the main reason was that it was a “total waste of money and a nasty habit”.

Rusco said the Government was gouging smokers many of whom would find it hard to give up, especially older, long-term smokers.

Daksha Gopal, owner of Island Bay’s Hy-Grade dairy in Wellington, said tobacco purchases were the cornerstone of her business, attracting customers who often bought other groceries.

She agreed the government was taking advantage of smokers, many of whom tried to stop when the annual increase came in, but couldn’t because of addiction.

Self-described social smoker Chelsea Martin, 25, is from the United States but is working at a Wellington bar while travelling.

“I was shocked by the cigarette prices when I got here – they are a lot less expensive back home.”

The government has not ruled additional tax hikes for tobacco but neither have they indicated they will continue beyond 2016.

Government duty minister Nick Smith said there had been no decision or discussion within Cabinet to further increase tax increases, introduced in 2012.

“I am in no position to give an assurance one way or another,” Smith said.

The tax was introduced in an attempt to reach the goal of having a smoke free New Zealand by 2025. At the time, a further $20m was set aside to fund the project.

“But the Government remains committed to the 2025 smoke free New Zealand target – the excise tax is just part of the package of measures.”

Ministry of Health figures show a slow decrease in the rate of adults who smoke at least monthly – from 20 per cent in 2007 to less than 17 per cent in 2015.

The rate had fallen faster among teenager and people in their 20s but the rate has started to level out, with only a slight drop last year.

Other measure, such as plain packaging, have also stalled and the Government has come under fire from public health experts for losing ground in combating tobacco.

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