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Happy World Smokefree Day: Excise, plain packaging, but no e-cigs

This has been a busy fortnight for tobacco policy. Fittingly, today is World Smokefree Day, and the Government sure has upped the ante to show it is taking the Smokefree by 2025 goal seriously with increases in tobacco excise and the announcement of plain packaging.

There is much to say about excise, plain packaging and e-cigs separately. I’ll follow up with some future blog posts if they remain topical. But here are some initial thoughts on each:

Excise tax

The tobacco excise Regulatory Impact Statement is fun.

Check out this table:

Table 1 tobacco RIS

Things to keep in mind that the current (daily) smoking rate is 15%, down from 16.3% in 2010. The difference between doing nothing and a 10% annual regime comes down to 1.7 percentage points by 2025. In percentages, the differences may be taken a bit more seriously (a 4 percent decrease if there are no taxes, or a 15 percent decrease if the current excise regime is applied up to 2025). But none of these projections get close to the Smokefree by 2025 goal (which is actually an aspiration to have a smoking prevalence of 5%, rather than 0%, but still).

The point is, these excise increases are not going to get people quitting in droves. And for those who continue to smoke, it’s going to be a significant strain on the wallet.

It not get the smoking rate down to the aspired level but at least the government will continue to rake it in. Also in the RIS:

Table3 RIS

It’s weird the RIS would consider the annual savings to those who quit, when it’s the government’s fault the cost is so high in the first place. Surely the alternative way to present this would be annual costs per non-quitter.

Plain packaging

This was announced earlier in the year. From memory, it was just as our Health of the State report was being finalised, otherwise I would have loved to cover the issue more. I distinctly remember dismissing the idea that New Zealand would ever do anything as pointless as plain packaging, therefore we didn’t need to cover it in our report. But what do you know?

The Conversation has a great take on the unintended consequences of plain packaging. The studies are hardly definitive, but the broader point is that people do not always act the way governments want them to act. An obvious unintended consequence could be smokers down-hifting to cheaper brands, though this is somewhat mitigated (though by no means eradicated) by an aggressive excise regime.

This is also a good graph to keep in mind if we’re really going to look to Australia on this issue. It comes from City AM:

City AM plain packaging

If our government is expecting plain packaging to do the work that tax hikes are no longer doing, the evidence won’t come from Australia.

And finally, I know some people hate the term but I’m going to go ahead and use it: we’re heading down a slippery slope.

What do you think is going to happen if (when) plain packaging isn’t achieving its stated aims? Trick question, Otago Uni public health have already indicated their next move: Making cigarette sticks unattractive next step for plain packaging. Genius. It’s not enough for the packaging to be ugly, the cigarette must be ugly too:

“Requiring cigarette sticks and rolling paper to feature such a graphic, or to be produced in dissuasive colours, would likely increase the impact plain packaging will have on those who smoke, while also deterring others from taking up smoking,” Professor Hoek says.

Let’s not pretend anti-smoking regulations will stop at plain packaging. I’m not as funny or creative as Eric Crampton, but he lays out some other potential lines of enquiry.


The morning seemed promising. But actually, not much new was said about e-cigarettes today, though I don’t think any political party can remain ignorant about them now, which I guess is an improvement. E-cigs need to be  on the table. A quote from John Key makes it sound like the Ministry is still waiting on long-term evidence:

So there is some concern, at least by officials, that there may be long-term health impacts.

Keeping in mind that long term evidence, by the very nature of being long term, is pretty much impossible at this stage.

This comes down to a broader issue about government prohibition and regulation. Governments should not be banning things because they do not know if they are safe. That’s a massive and unnecessary burden of proof.

About Jenesa Jeram (23 Articles)
I'm a researcher at the Initiative, currently working on social issues and public health. I have Twitter but I'm not very good at it: @JenesaJeram (I'm also super creative).

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