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New Zealand’s generational tobacco ban is madness

Featured image credits: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a December news conference in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Since the 1970s, New Zealand has implemented many tobacco control measures, such as an indoor ban, advertising restrictions, and excise taxes, among many to tackle smoking. The price of cigarettes in New Zealand is among the highest globally. Despite smoking rates falling at an unprecedented rate, New Zealand believes there is no need to stop here, and a generational tobacco ban is now on the table. 

The generation tobacco ban would essentially ban people born after a particular year from buying cigarettes. The law is expected to be enacted in New Zealand in June this year, and everyone born after 2008 will not be allowed to buy cigarettes in their lifetime. 

The first question that the proposal begs is: why 2008, and not 2009 or 2007? By setting a subjectively determined cut-off date, the government of New Zealand will divide the society into two groups of adults (or once-to-be adults) who can buy cigarettes and those who can’t. The discriminatory nature of the ban is rather striking. From a public health perspective, those born before 2008 and smoking can be seen as a burden on the system–so why punish the other group, who, given the falling smoking rates, likely wouldn’t choose to smoke anyway?

The evidence on the effectiveness of generational smoking bans is weak. Instead of driving down the smoking rates, the tobacco sales ban not only doesn’t help the smoke-free cause, but it can also increase the smoking incidence among the youth. Bhutan, where the imports of tobacco products were banned during covid, demonstrates that such bans are riddled with unintended consequences and rarely achieve their original goals. After all, the Great Prohibition in the US stunningly demonstrated that, regardless of what the governments imagined when implementing bans, people always find creative ways to satisfy their wants. 

That is where the booming black market, encouraged by bans, fills the gap. In Bhutan, the only impact of the ban on the import and sales of tobacco products was to make them significantly more expensive, making illegal under-the-counter sales and the smuggling of these products even more attractive. That was also the case in South Africa, where banning the sales of tobacco and alcohol during covid boosted the illicit trade in these products.

Given the scope of the tobacco control measures in the past 50 years, I wonder if there is an endgame. New Zealand has tried it all. Indoor bans, plain packaging, excise taxes, and now the generational ban. What happens if the ambitious goal of becoming smoke-free doesn’t work out for New Zealand (which is bound to happen)? Where do we go from there? Do we outlaw thinking about smoking or using the word “tobacco”? This madness must stop. 

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