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Govt should raise tobacco taxes by up to 50 per cent: smoking opponents

There is very “strong scientific ground” for the government to increase taxes on tobacco to cut smoking rates, according to a public health expert.

Increasing tobacco taxes by as much as 50 per cent a year could form the “backbone” of efforts to make New Zealand smoke-free, politicians have been told.

Tobacco taxes increased by 10 per cent at the start of the year, and academics and anti-smoking groups have encouraged Parliament’s finance and expenditure select committee to support a bigger price hike.

Otago University public health professor Nick Wilson, who has studied the best-value methods for reducing the impact of smoking, said politicians were “on extremely strong scientific ground” when raising taxes on tobacco.

“It’s one of the most powerful things that can be done to improve the health of the population … tax can be the backbone of the strategy.”

Wilson said raising taxes would save money in the health sector within a year, due to a reduction in heart attacks and strokes, while it would also reduce the gap in smoking rates between Maori and non-Maori.

“This is in some way a no-brainer public health intervention if you’re actually gaining healthy years of lives and saving health costs.”

Wilson said the issue of e-cigarettes, which are not currently approved for smoking cessation in New Zealand, was “a very complex area” due to the amount of new studies coming out every week.

It would be best to control their use through pharmacies until their benefits and dangers were fully known, he said.

National Maori Tobacco Control Leadership Service kaiwhakahaere Zoe Hawke said tax increases were a “foundation policy” that anti-tobacco organisations could use to improve quitting rates.

“It gets people thinking about quitting, it moves people into accessing services more.”

Hawke said she was keen to see more progress on plain packaging rules for tobacco products, as well as the de-nicotinisation of cigarettes and consideration of e-cigarettes.

“We need to remove nicotine from the products out there and do some transitional moves to help people move away from it, and e-cigarettes could potentially be something that will help with that too.”

The health benefits of tax increases would outweigh the economic costs to smokers, but they would need to be backed up by support services “so they’re not just left out there stranded”, she said.

T&T Consulting director Sue Taylor said the smoking health programmes already in place were not doing enough to help people quit, and a significant price increase would make a big difference.

“Our people out there in the community … a lot of them are saying, ‘That’s the only thing that will encourage me to give up smoking’.

“My own father, when he smoked … he gave up because of the price increase: it was more important for him to be able to provide better things for us as children, than to continue smoking.”

Taylor said tobacco taxes should be increased by 50 per cent this year, followed by 25 per cent each year until 2020.

She did not support e-cigarettes as they “normalised” smoking, and was also concerned that the majority of e-cigarettes were produced by tobacco manufacturers.

“They’re still trying to double-dip everywhere, they’re still trying to introduce other ways of continuing to have the population addicted to nicotine, so we seriously need to think about how we’re going to tax those as well.”

Health New Zealand smoking policy researcher Murray Laugesen supported a tax increase, and said the Government should look at legalising the use of e-cigarettes.

“They’ve killed nobody so far, against 4000 deaths [a year] from ordinary cigarettes.”

Laugesen also said there was “sound” evidence for low-nicotine cigarettes from trials in New Zealand and the United States.

“They show clearly that this reduces the appetite for nicotine, and if we lose the appetite for nicotine, we smoke less.”

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