How New Zealand’s smoking ban got stubbed out – and what the UK can learn from it

<span>New Zealand’s previous government intended to stop anyone in the country born after January 2009 from ever buying cigarettes legally.</span><span>Photograph: Johanna Parkin/The Guardian</span>
New Zealand’s previous government intended to stop anyone in the country born after January 2009 from ever buying cigarettes legally.Photograph: Johanna Parkin/The Guardian

When New Zealand announced its world-first law to ban smoking for future generations it was widely hailed as a life-saving plan that would prevent thousands of smoking-related deaths, flatten out inequities in healthcare and save the economy billions of dollars.

The pioneering legislation – enacted in 2022 – introduced a steadily rising smoking age to stop those born after January 2009 from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes, alongside a slew of other measures to make smoking less affordable and accessible.

Related: What is Rishi Sunak’s anti-smoking bill and will it pass?

It won widespread public support, international praise from health advocates and inspired similar plans in the UK. But before the changes came into force, New Zealand’s new rightwing government unexpectedly scrapped it.

As the UK embarks on its own endeavour to ban smoking, here is a look at the rise and fall of New Zealand’s law, and what lessons the UK might learn.

How a groundbreaking law came to be

New Zealand’s plan to slash smoking rates began way before its pioneering ban.

Cigarette packs were slapped with warnings in the 1980s, licensed premises became smoke-free in the 1990s, and in 2010, a tobacco tax made cigarettes more expensive year on year.

That year, a Māori affairs select committee inquiry found the smoking rate among Māori and Pacific peoples was increasing, despite an overall decline, prompting the Smokefree Aotearoa New Zealand 2025 goal – an ambitious scheme to reduce smoking rates to less than 5% for all population groups.

Since then, daily smoking rates have steadily dropped – down to 6.8% in 2023 from 15.8% a decade earlier. But inequities remain – smoking rates for Māori are much higher, at 17.1% in 2023, down from 36.3% a decade ago.

Roughly 5,000 people still die from smoking-related health problems every year, according to Health NZ. Among total Māori deaths, almost a quarter (22.6%) were potentially attributable to smoking, compared with 12.3% among non-Māori and non-Pacific people.

To help address this disparity, in 2022 Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government introduced the world’s first smoking ban for future generations, to be designed by the then associate health minister Ayesha Verrall.

“Smoking rates were very low and we knew … further regulation could make a smoke-free generation and address the inequities that still exist,” Verrall told the Guardian.

The plan would also include dramatically reducing the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products, allowing their sale only through special tobacco stores, and slashing the number of stores legally allowed to sell cigarettes from 6,000 to just 600 nationwide.

Modelling showed the new measures would save thousands of lives and billions in healthcare costs, Verrall said. “The public reaction was incredibly supportive and the opposition was muted.”

Lauded by health advocates, loathed by business

Health professionals, Māori organisations and anti-tobacco groups praised the law.

“The general feeling was … a real sense of relief,” says Andrew Waa, an associate professor in public health at the University of Otago. “There was huge support among the general public, and internationally we got some very strong positive feedback from colleagues really interested in how it could happen in other countries.”

The law helped turn attention on to the tobacco industry itself, rather than the individuals smoking, Waa said.

“[Verrall] was an epidemiologist who understood health and was keen … to pass legislation that benefited the country.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. The centre-right National party and minor libertarian Act party – which are now in coalition government together – opposed the law, with National preferring to first reduce nicotine and Act claiming it would create a hidden market.

The most vocal public protest came from convenience store owners – known as dairies in New Zealand – who were concerned the ban would gut their earnings and expose them to crime.

The tobacco industry also protested. An investigation by the broadcaster RNZ into one of the most visible anti-smokefree groups, Save Our Stores, found the campaign, which is designed to look like a grassroots movement, was being quietly backed by the tobacco companies British American Tobacco New Zealand and Imperial Brands.

Still, very few people predicted the axing of the ban in November last year, within weeks of the new coalition government being voted in. No parties had made it an election issue.

As part of its coalition agreement with the populist party New Zealand First, National agreed to repeal the amendments, including “removing requirements for denicotisation, removing the reduction in retail outlets and the generation ban”.

The finance minister, Nicola Willis, confirmed the new measures would be scrapped before March, with the revenue from cigarette sales going towards the coalition’s tax cuts.

In February this year, the associate health minister Casey Costello said the government was committed to being smoke-free by 2025, but it would take a different regulatory approach, saying the ban was “untested” and citing concerns over a “prohibitionist approach” that could have downsides for retailers and in terms of crime.

Government ministers repeatedly claimed the law would increase tobacco-related crime, even when senior health officials told them it would have the opposite effect.

The fallout

The repeal caused fury among health professionals and opposition parties. A petition of 45,000 signatures was delivered to parliament calling for the government to change course, and an urgent claim was filed in the Waitangi Tribunal – a commission of inquiry for claims brought by Māori against the crown.

“Shock would be an understatement – it was just absolute dismay,” Waa said. “They are trading off people’s lives for money – and I’m appalled by that.”

Verrall was similarly shocked, “as were clinicians up and down the country”, she said.

The reversal would halt progress towards a smoke-free future and entrench “persistent inequalities, with Māori being much more likely to smoke and die from smoking”, Verrall said.

Another RNZ investigation last month reported that language used in notes sent from Costello’s office to health professionals were strikingly similar to tobacco industry talking points, prompting accusations that big tobacco had influenced the government.

When asked about the allegations, Costello said in a statement to the Guardian she had nothing to do with the tobacco industry. “My focus in this role is on reducing smoking rates and having practical approaches that help people quit.

“We’re down to a very small number of youth smokers, 19,000 in total, and a larger group of people who have been smoking for a long time and who need help to quit. Cutting off supply, which is what the last government had planned, doesn’t reduce demand or stop those who are addicted wanting to smoke.”

The lessons

When asked about the UK’s legislative plans, Costello said the situation in the two countries was “quite different”.

“New Zealand’s smoking rates are around half those in the UK, and that’s the principal reason we repealed the proposals from the last government – we are well on the way to achieving the Smokefree 2025 goal of fewer than 5% of people smoking daily.”

However, Waa and Verrall had some suggestions.

Waa believed more effort to secure cross-party support would help prevent policy flip-flopping. “In retrospect, more could have been done to get National to vote for the law at the time, because they effectively supported it but wanted some reordering and had some concerns with it.”

Public consultation is also important, he said. New Zealand research shows that young people support a smoke-free future, as do smokers themselves. A December survey following the government’s announcement showed the majority of New Zealanders wanted to retain the world-leading smoke-free measures, with 67% of respondents in support.

But the major hurdle to creating a smoking law with staying power was the tobacco industry itself, Waa said. “In Aotearoa New Zealand, the industry’s fingerprints are all over it,” he says. “[Other countries] need to make sure there is no industry influence in the way governments make decisions.”

Verrall agrees. “Our experience has been that big tobacco works in the shadows.

“I encourage members of parliament in the United Kingdom to make a positive vote for the health of their people – but also be prepared for the fight after the bill is passed.”