Editorial: Conquering the appeal of tobacco

Tobacco is toxic and highly addictive. Used exactly as its manufacturers intend, it can kill. It is a major cause of cancer, heart attacks, strokes and severe respiratory conditions such as emphysema and asthma. Around 5000 people die from smoking-related causes in this country each year.

Yet incredibly, despite the dangers of tobacco having been well-documented and widely known for decades, one in five New Zealanders over the age of 15 is a smoker. The figure starkly illustrates the unfathomable attractiveness of tobacco to the thousands who start using it each year, as well as the gripping power of its physical and psychological addictiveness. Only 6 per cent of those who try to quit each year succeed.

That figure must rise exponentially if the Government's goal of making New Zealand smoke-free by 2025 is to be met. The target does not mean banning tobacco altogether, but reducing the prevalence of smoking and the availability of commercial tobacco to such low levels that New Zealand is essentially smoke-free. It has been suggested that could mean getting the smoking rate to less than 5 per cent of the population.

It is an ambitious aim, but one the Government should try to achieve, using the many measures at its disposal. One is to hike prices, though that must be carefully balanced. A Health Ministry suggestion that tobacco tax should rise till a pack of 20 cigarettes costs $100 by around 2020 would undoubtedly make smoking unaffordable for most, but would also see a big rise in black market products, smuggling and crime. The Government was right to dismiss it in favour of more measured rises, like the 10 per cent a year increases for the past three years.

The effect of those is still being evaluated, but there is some evidence they have reduced at least the amount people smoke, if not the number of actual smokers. The volume of roll-your-own tobacco sold in New Zealand decreased by nearly 15 per cent last year, and cigarette sales were down by more than 6 per cent, suggesting significant price rises have an immediate impact.

Of course, reducing tobacco sales will reduce the $1 billion a year the Government gets from taxing it, but that needs to be weighed against the nearly $2b a year smoking-related illnesses cost the health sector and the untold cost of lost working hours and productivity.

The Government is also right to pursue its plan to introduce plain packaging. The howls of protest from the tobacco companies should reassure Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, who is pushing the Government to meet the 2025 target, that she is on the right track.

The claim it will have no effect flies in the face of the slogans, campaigns and packaging cigarette companies have used for years, including images of pristine beaches, snowy mountains and mint green colours all designed to promote tobacco as refreshing and clean. It is anything but.

The Dominion Post