Joshua Knelman is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Firebrand: A Tobacco Lawyer’s Journey
It’s that time of year when cigarette smokers often contemplate quitting as a New Year’s resolution. Less often an occurrence is when a government makes that resolution for all future generations.
Yet that’s exactly what transpired this holiday season in New Zealand, when firebrand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (b. 1980), by way of her associate minister of health, Dr. Ayesha Verrall (b. 1979) made the sensational announcement in mid-December that no Kiwi citizen born after Jan. 1, 2009 shall ever reach the legal age required to purchase a pack of cigarettes.
Henceforth, with each passing year, the legal smoking age will rise exactly one year higher, meaning that in as short a time as one generation, and as older smokers expire (presumably earlier than non-smoking citizens), there will theoretically be no new firebreathers left on the southwestern Pacific island country.
In fact, until news of the New Zealand legislation circumnavigated the globe, Canada and New Zealand were considered on par when it came to their leading anti-smoking strategies, but this latest policy move slides them past us, straight to the front of the international no-smoking section. Will it work, though?
The landmark, aged-based anti-tobacco legislation – unique in the world – will have to overcome numerous challenges to succeed. Other countries contemplating more aggressive tobacco-related health policies – along with multinational tobacco companies and their shareholders – will follow the results closely to see whether this smoke-free scenario plays out smoothly or burns out.
Similar to Canada, New Zealand doesn’t have any major homegrown cigarette manufacturers left. Instead, multinational corporations control the bulk of sales in “sticks” – the industry terms for cigarettes.
And much like Canada, New Zealand has pounded down its national smoking rate over decades with a multipronged strategy, from more than 50 per cent post-First World War – when New Zealand’s soldiers were supplied free cigarettes to boost morale – to 10 per cent currently; about the same as Canada.
In Canada, we’ve long-ago banned advertising for this deadly but legal product, continue to raise taxes on its sale, and are considering placing warnings on individual sticks, not just their packaging. Meanwhile our provincial governments are locked in legal negotiations with the largest cigarette manufacturers in the land – basically, the same cohort operating in New Zealand. In Canada, though, tobacco companies have been granted creditor protection as they face $500-billion worth of lawsuits, including provincial claims aimed at recovering smoking-related health costs, as well as a landmark ruling upheld by the Supreme Court in favour of Quebec smokers affected by disease and early deaths linked to tobacco.
In Canada, at present, some estimates suggest taxes collected from tobacco sales still account for 1 per cent of all government tax revenue.
For now, New Zealand is leading alone, and like a recovering addict, the strategy allows it time to gradually wean itself off the tax wealth generated from cigarettes, which is no small change: about $2-billion annually.
As younger New Zealanders are denied access to this contentious consumer product, and tax revenue shrinks, the black-market in sticks will surely blossom. The billion-dollar question: How large will that illicit market become? After all, it won’t be illegal for Kiwis born post-2009 to smoke, only to purchase cigarettes. Entrepreneurial tobacco pirates are likely setting sail with dreams of claiming New Zealand’s abandoned treasure – those revenues forsaken by the government in favour of public health.
Other X-factors: What should happen if a citizen who theoretically could have purchased cigarettes, were they born one or two years earlier, decides to sue the government for the right to do so? Or if a person under a certain age who smokes is immigrating to New Zealand, will they be warned to quit before entry documents are rubber-stamped? And what of tourists who want to light up while on vacation?
Questions arise, yet one thing is certain: with the exception of the nation of Bhutan, where anti-smoking laws stretch back to the 1700s, no country has tackled the conundrum of cigarettes in quite this way.
Even with intense anti-smoking strategies at work for decades in most Western countries, no strategy thus far has managed to seriously threaten the prospects of multinational tobacco companies in those markets, until now. New Zealand’s solution is the outlier so far, but if it trends internationally, it could actually cause the global industry to feel the burn.