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Big tobacco influence in NZ – Much ado about nothing

In brief
  • The media makes allegations of government ties to Big Tobacco in New Zealand, but is there really anything out of the ordinary occurring?
  • Government defends itself, saying no rules were broken and voters can decide if they don’t agree with any donations made. 
  • Many feel Labour’s anti-smoking laws were too stringent, ultimately ineffective in reducing smoking rates and costly to the poor. 

Lobbyists gonna lobby 

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s government, scrutinised for its tobacco policy, faces allegations of being influenced by the industry’s lobbyists, but is this just a lot of smoke? 

Critics point to the Prime Minister’s sister in law’s role in the tobacco industry, amongst others close to Cabinet, as evidence the government may be under their sway. Also, Associate Health Minister Casey Costello’s proposals for freezing tobacco excise tax and offering some additional tax breaks are being attacked as concessions to Big Tobacco. 

Is this another Stuart Nash, Michael Wood, or Nanania Mahuta type of situation? It doesn’t appear to be. Costello says she did nothing wrong and Luxon says the Cabinet office was aware of his in-law’s work. There’s no evidence to suggest any rules were broken. 

The tobacco industry, like every other legal industry in New Zealand, is allowed to lobby the government. Donations from the industry lobbyists to government politicians will be made public and voters will decide how comfortable they are with the numbers. If they are not, then they will deal with them at the ballot box. Even then, there are plenty of voters who are fine with repealing Labour’s laws because many believe smoking is a personal choice. 

The most notable thing, for many, about the previous government’s anti-smoking crusade is how over the top it was. The current coalition long argued against the previous government’s stringent smoke-free laws aimed at being some of the world’s toughest. 

A hypocritical and deceptive narrative put forward by the mainstream media 

Lawyer cum journalist Philip Crump aka Thomas Cranmer points out RNZ’s coverage of Costello overlooked a paper to Cabinet that supported the increase of excise tax on tobacco products in line with CPI. The increase took effect from 1 January. 

Big tobacco influence in NZ - Much ado about nothing - Centrist
Casey Costello is accused by the media of being in Big Tobacco’s pocket, but are they telling the truth? 
Image: Doug Mountain

Journalist Ian Wishart wonders what kind of an industry plant for Big Tobacco would float the idea of raising excise taxes. 

Furthermore, Wishart says that while Labour was calling for Costello to be sacked, there was not much concern regarding former Labour minister Dr Ayesha Verrall’s similar support for cannabis legislation in 2020. 

“Cannabis smoking is harmful, however I voted for the referendum, because the harms of people who smoke being criminalised were ones I wanted to avoid,” she said

Smoking is still an expensive habit in New Zealand

The approach to push taxes through the roof in order to achieve a ‘smokefree 2025’ was producing diminishing returns with fewer than 300,000 daily smokers left in the country that are proving extremely difficult to dissuade. 

In 2021, ACT leader David Seymour, when in opposition, released a statement that said: 

“Tobacco taxes are failing to reduce smoking levels. Despite virtually doubling the level of tax, smoking rates have fallen by only a few percentage points.” 

Seymour has long been opposed to increasing taxes on tobacco for the reason he says that it hurts beneficiaries the most. 

“The average smoker pays about $3800 in tobacco tax each year. That is money families could be spending on food and clothing. Tobacco taxes are taking food out of the mouths of some of the poorest children,” he said at the time. 

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