Comment: Dramatic events are unfolding in the global battle to end the harm caused by smoking of commercial tobacco products. The publication in December 2021 of the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan followed by this week’s introduction of the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Bill by Associate Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall places Aotearoa at the centre of these events.

The plan will implement governance arrangements to ensure Māori (who are most affected by the smoking epidemic introduced during colonisation) leadership and input. The legislation will result in implementation of three world-leading measures included in the Action Plan which will fundamentally change the nature and supply of tobacco products.

These measures will remove virtually all the nicotine from cigarettes and tobacco rendering them non-addictive, greatly reduce the number of outlets that sell tobacco products, and introduce a ‘smokefree generation’ policy that will make it illegal to sell tobacco to people born after 2008. Research suggests these three measures will achieve the Smokefree Aotearoa goal of minimal smoking prevalence among all peoples by 2025, or very soon after.

The plan also proposes providing stronger support for people who smoke to quit and increasing funding for community-based smokefree initiatives. It will build on existing measures such as regular above-inflation tobacco excise increases, comprehensive smokefree environments legislation and the regulatory framework introduced in the 2020 Vaping Amendment Act, which aims to make vaping products available as alternatives to smoking for people who smoke, whilst minimising use among youth.

Leading public health researchers and advocacy health groups such as the Cancer Society of New Zealand, New Zealand Medical Association, The Stroke Association, Action on Smoking and Health, Hāpai te Hauora, Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, and Tala Pasifika have warmly welcomed the Action Plan, describing it as a game-changing. The international public health and smokefree community moved swiftly to praise the plan, which has catalysed global thinking. Aotearoa’s initiative will provide a crucial template that other countries could use to achieve their own smokefree goals.

Indeed, since publication of the action plan, momentum to implement similarly innovative measures has been growing worldwide. In the last week alone, three significant developments have occurred. The US government is reportedly preparing to re-activate the regulatory process needed to develop a product standard that will mandate non-addictive cigarettes. In England, a new report has recommended several far-reaching new measures including implementing a smokefree generation policy, ending online, duty-free and supermarket sales of tobacco products, and preventing any new tobacco products from being introduced to the market. Finally, the Canadian government has proposed new regulations which would make Canada the first country to require all cigarettes themselves to feature health warnings.

These initiatives highlight growing global momentum; ending the tobacco epidemic is no longer a dream but has become mainstream policy in more and more countries. The tide has finally turned. Real hope now exists that the huge suffering smoking causes will end, and future generations will grow up free from the burden ill health smoking imposes. Strong sector-wide support for the Action Plan and its far-sighted new measures will ensure Aotearoa makes a major contribution to realising one of the 21st Century’s greatest public health achievements. 

Richard Edwards, Janet Hoek and Andrew Waa are co-directors of the ASPIRE 2025 Research Centre at the University of Otago in Wellington.

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