Key under pressure on tobacco price hike

17:00, Sep 12 2009
smoke
National has so far proved resistant to Maori Party tobacco proposals.

THE Maori Party is pressuring the government to take tough new anti-smoking measures including a hefty price rise and a ban on retail displays and is calling for a select committee inquiry to "bring these bastards from the tobacco companies out in the open".

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia is leading the push for change, and although she is up against National's deep aversion to moves that could be seen as "nanny state", her party holds an important trump card its status as a key coalition partner.

Smoking is a key issue for Turia's party, as it is linked to a third of all Maori deaths. Maori smoking rates are among the highest in the world, and are twice as high as Pakeha rates. About 45% of Maori aged 15-64 smoke (154,000 people) and between 650 to 1000 Maori die as a result every year. In total, 690,300 Kiwis aged 15-64 smoke.

The issue is shaping up into a serious political stoush sources say Turia has become so frustrated with Health Minister Tony Ryall that she has gone over his head to Prime Minister John Key. Turia, Ryall and Key declined to comment last week but a spokesperson for Turia confirmed she was "in talks with other ministers about a number of tobacco issues".

It is understood neither side wants to jeopardise negotiations by involving the media.

Turia's stance is supported by new university research, which recommends a SmokeFree Commission be formed to license retailers, a ban on sales near schools, and replacing branded cigarette packs with plain packs covered in health warnings.

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Yesterday Ben Youdan, director of anti-tobacco group Ash, also backed Turia and said upping taxes on cigarettes and tobacco was the most effective way to stop people smoking, and would be a "low-risk" move, and a revenue-booster, for National. (Last year the tobacco tax take was $963 million, excluding GST).

Youdan said he was "quite hopeful that that would be something we could achieve in the next year" and challenged National to "reclaim a bit of leadership" around tobacco policies.

National has so far proved resistant to Turia's proposals Ryall and Key rejected her push earlier this year for a ban on tobacco displays in shops but she is continuing to lobby.

It is understood she wants to see a hefty rise in the price of cigarettes and of loose tobacco for roll-your-owns, as well as a ban on retail displays. Individual retailers are not allowed to discount cigarettes or tobacco and nationwide prices are largely determined by taxation and guidelines from tobacco companies. Companies can, however, adjust prices across the board and in June they did so, dropping cigarette prices by between 50c and $1.10 per packet. Turia saw this as a move to make smoking more affordable in the recession and has asked the Ministry of Health to investigate if this is legal under the Smokefree Environment Act.

Yesterday one Auckland Foodtown supermarket was selling packets of 20 cigarettes for $9.40 to $11.90, and a 50g packet of tobacco cost between $32.40 and $34.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira, who quit smoking the day a beloved uncle died of lung cancer, said National and the Maori Party "have different views" over smoking issues.

Although National is clearly much less keen on radical change in this area, it wants to maintain a good relationship with the Maori Party not just this term, but as a partner in future coalition governments. It is also negotiating with the Maori Party over support for its Emissions Trading Scheme.

Harawira told the Sunday Star-Times he was pushing for the Maori Affairs select committee to launch an inquiry into Maori and tobacco, and wanted to "bring these bastards from the tobacco companies out in the open".

anthony.hubbard@star-times.co.nz

Sunday Star Times