New Zealand tobacco bill: Green MP Chloe Swarbrick hits out at British American Tobacco and Imperial over smoking deaths in tense exchange

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Green MP Chloe Swarbrick challenges big tobacco companies over daily deaths. Video / Provided

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick has confronted two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies asking whether they take responsibility for their share of the 13 smoking-related deaths a day – around 5,000 a year – in New Zealand.

The tense exchanges came during a select committee hearing today on an amendment bill aimed at creating a ‘smoke-free generation’.

The bill would mean that people aged 14 and under could never legally buy tobacco and would drastically reduce nicotine levels – two global initiatives.

This is part of the country’s goal to reduce smoking to 5% of the population by 2025.

During the meeting, Swarbrick asked representatives from British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands Australasia about their market share in the country – together around 90%.

British American Tobacco NZ chief executive Andy Hrstic said the company’s share was “around 60 per cent”.

“So if we take 13 people a day, dying from tobacco use,” Swarbrick replied, “then you take responsibility for about seven of them?”

“Ahh, I’m not sure I can understand what you’re trying to do… We’re clear that smoking poses serious health risks,” Hrstic said.

“No one should smoke cigarettes. If you smoke, you should quit. And if you can’t quit, solutions like vaping are seeing significant success…That’s our company goal.”

In 2019, British American Tobacco had over a billion cigarettes for sale in New Zealand with a retail value of over $1.6 billion.

Swarbrick posed the same questions to Imperial Brands Australasia, with market manager Brad Topp responding that they had “about 27%” market share.

When asked if they take responsibility for that share of daily deaths, Topp said the health risks of smoking are “well known” and that they support “evidence-based regulation for products tobacco”.

Swarbrick also asked if they prioritize tobacco reduction over profits and what their future is in a “smoke-free” country.

“Do you stay focused on combustible tobacco products even though you know they kill people?” Swarbrick asked.

“We’re focusing right now in New Zealand on combustible cigarettes, yes,” Topp replied, adding that internationally they sell e-cigarettes.

Imperial Brands Australasia in 2019 had nearly 300 million cigarettes for sale in New Zealand in 2019, with a retail value of over $430 million.

Representatives of both companies said they supported the ambition of the bill, but were concerned about aspects such as the use of reduced nicotine in cigarettes to encourage people to quit.

They said there was no evidence that it would and that it was the smoking that caused the health problems and not the nicotine.

They also said there was a growing illicit market in the country and smokers would turn to it once the legal channels were reduced.

Topp referenced a 2019 KPMG report that found around 11.5% of cigarettes smoked here came from the illicit market.

Customs estimated this year that it could now be between around “10 and 20%”.

He also said limiting the number of retailers was a concern, particularly for dairies where tobacco sales accounted for around “40-60% of revenue”.

“Many may not survive,” he said.

The bill proposed that the Chief Health Officer set a “single current maximum or series of decreasing maximum number” of licensed retailers in an area.

According to a Cabinet paper on the relevant Smokefree Aotearoa Action Plan, modellers had used a 95% reduction of the estimated 8,000 retailers, but noted that the final number should take into account differences between rural and urban areas.

Earlier, public health expert Professor Nick Wilson expressed concern about the influence of the tobacco industry, which “lives its life in total distortion and distortion of the facts”.

“We must treat them with extreme skepticism.”

Wilson said his own studies concluded the illicit market was only 5%. They also showed that most illegal cigarettes came from a few countries and were sold in certain regions, meaning there was room for better control.

“The industry has exacerbated this problem and produced numbers that we cannot validate.”

He backed the bill, which he considered “hugely important” – “perhaps one of the most important a government has passed in decades”.

“It’s really cutting edge in tobacco control. If adopted, many [around the world] will look at New Zealand’s success.”

Wilson said he’s been concerned about the health effects of tobacco for more than years.

He said trials had shown that reducing nicotine in cigarettes increased the quit rate.

However, he said it was important for the government to strengthen wording regarding denicotinisation, including that it should come after six months and the level of nicotine would be limited to 0.4mg.

Without specifying that the government will be caught in “endless legal battles”, he declared.

The tobacco-free goal:

• By 2025, less than 5% of New Zealanders will be smokers.

• This target was established in March 2011 in response to recommendations from a landmark parliamentary inquiry by the Maori Affairs Select Committee.

Smoking rates are falling, but there are still significant inequalities for Maori, Pacific peoples and those living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

• The current adult smoking rate in New Zealand is 13.4% in 2019/2020, up from 16.6% in 2014/15 15 and 18.2% in 2011/12.

• Current Maori smoking rate is 31.4% in 2019/20, up from 38.1% in 2015/15 and 40.2% in 2011/12.

• Maori women have the highest smoking rates in New Zealand, at 32%. Maori men also have a disproportionately higher smoking rate of 25%.

• About 4,500-5,000 people die from smoking tobacco products every year in New Zealand – about 12-13 deaths.

• Since that landmark investigation by the Maori Affairs Commission in 2010, more than 50,000 New Zealanders have died of tobacco-related causes.

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