A burning issue

Butt out: Politicians of all flavours shy away from talking tobacco with the media.
Butt out: Politicians of all flavours shy away from talking tobacco with the media.

IT'S A toxic brew, smoke and power politics. Thousands of smokers die every year, despite everything the politicians have done.

The feeling of rage and woe is palpable in the Maori Party. Tariana Turia, the minister in charge of the problem, said in May that she and her husband George were non-smokers "and yet all six of our children, at one time, took up smoking. It broke my heart".

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira, who quit smoking the day a beloved uncle died of lung cancer, supplies the rage. He wants the Maori Affairs Select Committee to carry out an inquiry "and to bring these bastards from the tobacco companies out in the open to shine a spotlight on these pricks".

Maori Party co-leader and Associate Minister of Health Tariana Turia wants sweeping changes but parliamentary colleagues won't commit.
Maori Party co-leader and Associate Minister of Health Tariana Turia wants sweeping changes but parliamentary colleagues won't commit.

National Party politicians, on the other hand, take a different tone. Tau Henare, a reformed smoker who recently lapsed after two-and-a-half years' abstinence, says, "I'm not a zealot." The chairman of the Maori Affairs Select Committee started smoking at 14 but doesn't share Harawira's enthusiasm for a crusade against Big Tobacco.

He doesn't think tough measures like boosting the price of cigarettes is likely to work. As for those addicted to smoking, "Well, they can give up. When I gave up smoking I gave up cold turkey a lot of people do." He intends to give up again "very soon".

There is the same split between the parties at cabinet level. Turia's push for a ban on cigarette displays in shops crashed into National Party coolness earlier this year. Associate Health Minister Turia is said to be so frustrated by her dealings with Tony Ryall that she went over his head to Prime Minister John Key.

So will the Maori Party be able to persuade their larger, colder partner to turn up the heat on Big Tobacco? Smoking is shaping up to be a serious battle for the coalition so serious that ministers from both sides refuse to talk about it, even off the record.

RESEARCHERS AND anti-smoking lobbying groups agree with Turia that sweeping changes are now needed. Despite a generation of political effort, smoking rates have gone down only slowly. Last year they even crept up a bit. But National has shown that it is not keen on paternalist measures: it lifted the official ban on junk food in school tuck shops; it reversed Labour's ban on eco-unfriendly lightbulbs; it decried Labour's "nanny statism". Its decision to continue with the anti-smacking law despite overwhelming public support for its abolition has opened it once more to wounding charges of political maternalism. What's more, it campaigned to cut taxes, not to raise them. Can it afford, politically, to crack down on smoking?

Otago University tobacco researcher Richard Edwards says the "nanny state" argument is nonsense. People typically start smoking as young teenagers. So the decision is not, contrary to the usual libertarian argument, a personal choice made by adults.

"Most people who start smoking do so when they're children and they're not of an age to make an informed decision," says Edwards. "And smoking is highly addictive they quickly have the choice taken away from them. So it's about protecting children from exposure to a hazard: tobacco." If the government does not step in to protect children, he argues, it is not a nanny state but a negligent one.

The National-led government is "completely opposed to increasing tax or being seen to increase tax. That's just not part of their ideological make-up", Edwards says. "We're saying in this instance this is a case with a public healthy purpose it's a good tax, if you like, and it's very justifiable."

Increasing the tobacco tax and with it the price of cigarettes "is the intervention with the clearest evidence that it works. There is absolutely overwhelming evidence from all around the world, including in New Zealand, that it's very effective". Surveys also show that if much of the extra money raised by the tax is used to help smokers quit, more than half of smokers would support it.

But the last time there was a substantial increase in tobacco tax that is, greater than the regular annual increase to match inflation was in 2001. This means that cigarettes have become more affordable in real terms. Adolescents in particular are affected by the price: they are less likely to take it up if the price rises substantially.

Labour apparently considered another price hike during its last term in office but decided against it. By then, it was facing an enormous political backlash over its alleged nannyishness. Now, however, it would be willing to consider the issue again, says MP and smoking spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway.

Turia has clearly signalled she wants an increase in the tax and a bigger boost in the tax on loose tobacco. A thin roll-your-own is cheaper than a fat manufactured cigarette, and many smokers switched to roll-your-owns as the price of commercial cigarettes went up. Turia noted in a speech in May that roll-your-owns are more likely to be smoked by 15- to 17-year-olds than any other type: increasing the price would have immediate health gains for the young. "About 50% of New Zealand smokers smoke roll-your-own cigarettes. This is a very high rate in fact no other country has roll-your-own smoking at anything close to our level," she noted.

Researchers point out that previous National governments have increased tobacco prices. The Bolger-led government did so in 1991. In 1995, the National health minister, Jenny Shipley, put up the price of roll-your-owns, and in 1998 Bill English's administration put taxes up again. "National does know how to do it," remarked one tobacco researcher. English is now finance minister, and Turia has been lobbying him and Key. Would he put up the tobacco taxes? English declined to speak to the Sunday Star-Times. So did John Key. So did Turia. The message was: the ministers did not want to negotiate through the media.

Treasury has long opposed tied taxes such as the tobacco tax, but the politics of tobacco are not always predictable. Act opposed the Labour-led government's ban on smoking in pubs and bars, for instance, but leader Rodney Hide says it would not necessarily oppose other kinds of anti-smoking measures. It objected to the Labour law as infringing the rights of bar owners. However, says Hide, who has never smoked, "I consider nicotine to be the most addictive substance there is, so why would we let our kids loose on it?"

HONE HARAWIRA'S proposal to name and shame the cigarette companies is a tactic not often tried in New Zealand. However, says researcher Richard Edwards, there is some evidence it can help reduce smoking. California, where smoking rates are now among the lowest in the world, has used this approach.

But there is only one NGO that has done this, a radical Maori organisation called Te Reo Marama (Speaking Clearly). And it has just had its main government funding cut.

Director Shane Bradbrook, whose dreadlocks belie his mild-mannered style, says the Ministry of Health ended a contract his group's principal source of income about 10 days ago.

"We asked, `Was it a performance issue?' And they said `No, it wasn't a performance issue."' Bradbrook concedes, though, that the tough anti-tobacco rhetoric could well have made National politicians uncomfortable.

The group's website has a big graphic of cigarette packets branded "Maori Killers" and says: "All this industry wants are new lips to replace the ill and dying ones. It doesn't care who it kills." It adds a quote supposedly from a tobacco company executive to an actor in its advertisements: "We don't smoke that shit, we just reserve the right to sell it to the young, the poor, the black, the stupid."

A spokeswoman for Turia said she had not made the decision to cut the group's Ministry of Health funding. "That was an operational matter done by the ministry." The ministry told the Star-Times it was reorganising its funding priorities. The $159,000 contract was a nine-month scoping project on how Maori leaders could spread the anti-smoking message. If the contract had run for a year it would have been $212,000, but there was no guarantee it would run beyond nine months.

Carrick Graham, who worked as a PR for British American Tobacco for five years until 2006, regularly showers the ministry with Official Information Act requests about the anti-smoking NGOs. He says he does not get paid by the cigarette companies to do this, but acts out of his personal interest.

There is an official gravy train, he says, where the government will this year spend $55 million through 115 groups on tobacco education and control. Yet despite spending "millions and millions" of dollars every year, there was little to show for it. He said he was the only one asking questions.

"If their accountability is poor, why should they get away with it?" he asks.

When he took a course on tobacco control at Auckland University, he says, Te Reo Marama refused to address the course because he was present. Bradbrook confirms this, and asks why it should attend when a former PR for the tobacco industry was there "hoovering up" valuable information about tobacco control campaigns?

Nicky Hager's book The Hollow Men said that when Graham was working for BAT he booked two tables at an expensive National Party fundraising function. So was this a piece of tobacco industry lobbying and influence-buying?

Graham laughs and refuses to "dignify Hager's book" with an answer. However, he suggests that his "party background" he is the son of former National cabinet minister Sir Douglas Graham was well known.

Just what political work the industry does is hard to know: it keeps a famously low profile. However, in 2006 the Star-Times revealed that National's associate health spokesman Jonathan Coleman had been in BAT's corporate box in Auckland for a U2 concert. Coleman, now an associate minister of health, reportedly got into an altercation when he lit up a cigar in a crowded area. Fellow National MP Simon Power, now minister of justice, was also in BAT's box.

Certainly, the tobacco companies can afford to hire the best lobbyists. The famous Wellington law firm Chen Palmer took up the cause of the industry when it was fighting against the introduction of stronger health warnings in the mid to late 1990s.

"They came here very early and we were ethically obliged to act for them," company partner Geoffrey Palmer, a former Labour prime minister, said in 2002. Ironically, Palmer, now the president of the Law Commission, is spearheading the campaign to toughen the laws governing another troublesome substance, alcohol.

Do the tobacco companies give money to political parties? BAT's written response to this question is typically cautious and mysterious. "It is not common practice for British American Tobacco (NZ) to make political donations."

RESEARCHERS AND lobbyists are calling for much more radical measures than ever before. In Australia, a major review committee has recommended lifting the price of cigarettes to $20 a packet. Here, Edwards and other researchers want cigarettes in plain packets, abolishing the alluring and misleading brand names like "Holiday" and "Horizon" and replacing them with big health warnings and scary photographs. They want a Smokefree Commission to license those who sell cigarettes. They would like to see import quotas that reduce and force the price up. Some researchers are even recommending a form of eventual tobacco prohibition. They point out that the product, after all, is unique: it kills half of those who use it. So it needs, arguably, uniquely tough countermeasures.

Action is urgent, they say, because the smoking rate is reducing so slowly: only a few percentage points in the last decade. "We're stuck," says veteran researcher and campaigner Murray Laugesen.

Edwards says: "We've known for 50 or 60 years now that this product kills. But about 30% of 20- to 24-year-olds still smoke, and about 50% of Maori in the same age group. Those are appalling figures." But so far, he says, "the government has not shown very much sign that they're taking the problem that seriously".

Sunday Star Times