Don't ban smoking, ban obesity

Last updated 05:00 07/01/2013

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Associate Health Minister, Tariana Turia, is fond of telling us "around 4500 to 5000 New Zealanders die each year from their smoking, or exposure to the smoke of others" and insisting New Zealand will be smoke free in 2025.

But the Health Minister never mentions the 8500 New Zealanders who die every year from a poor diet - over double the amount killed from tobacco consumption, and 21 times the amount killed from environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).

She does not mention the 3250 New Zealanders who die every year from being fat, or the 1500 who perish from a lack of vegetables, nor the 2500 couch potatoes who die from insufficient physical activity.

All of these figures are available from her own Health Ministry reports.

So why is it that New Zealand is trying to ban smoking? Shouldn't it get its priorities in order and focus on the obesity epidemic? Fat chance.

The Government is determined to ram this policy through, and the Health Sponsorship Council is continually telling us all there are heaps of reasons why people should be smoke-free, including saving money, being healthier, happier and protecting the children. But do any of these reasons stack up to scrutiny?

According to a study by the Erasmus University Department of Public Health, smokers save society money because they die younger, and a smoking ban would increase costs as the healthier population eventually moved in to nursing homes and the relatively expensive diseases of old age.

In New Zealand smoking generates approximately $1 billion per year in tax, whereas, the cost of smoking-related health care to the New Zealand taxpayer is about $250 million. 

After a smoking ban, if the Government stops spending $28 million a year on smoking cessation and prevention programmes, it will have an approximate tax deficit of $725 million (what smoking costs).

And the nation's health?

The World Health Organisation says health is a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, not just an absence of disease or infirmity, which is why many smokers say smoking improves their health. 

And now proponents of a zero-tolerance smoking ban say smoking is not only bad for smokers, but for non-smokers, too.

In New Zealand, we have the smoke police determined not only to ban smokers from deserted parks, university campuses, and the like, but to ban them from smoking in their cars, in their house, or in fact, anywhere at all.

However, using clean air legislation in New Zealand to push through a smoking ban is unlikely to work.

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New Zealand's environmental clean air act, The Resource Management Act 1991, is toothless because it does not set air quality fine particulate standards or pollution thresholds, instead allowing each local authority to determine their own standards.

The evidence that secondhand smoke is dangerous to non-smokers health is weak, and riddled with design flaws, political and academic bias.

The American Environment Protection agency initially found that 80 per cent of the ETS epidemiological studies they reviewed did not find a statistical significant overall association between ETS and lung cancer.

To improve statistical probability, the EPA lowered the statistical significance usually required in testing from 95 per cent, to 90 per cent, and reanalysed the data using a different statistical test with less stringent criteria to ensure positive results.

Given the weakness of ETS data, the fact that smoking deaths from ETS are relatively minor in comparison to obesity, and the fact that a zero-tolerance smoking ban will leave huge shortfall in tax in the New Zealand economy, it seems unlikely that smoking will ever be banned in New Zealand.

The current push for a zero-tolerance smoking ban is nothing more than a frenzy of moralism, spuriously disguised in the intolerant politically correct rhetoric of health concerns for New Zealanders air quality.

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