Every year, nearly 5000 people die from smoking-related illnesses in New Zealand, while smoking costs our health system nearly $2 billion, far more than the money raised from excise tax and GST.
The social harms and economic costs caused by tobacco are horrific and there are several things the Government can, and should, do about them.
New Zealand already has a proud history of tackling tobacco harm. From banning advertising to making workplaces, pubs and restaurants smoke-free, successive governments have worked hard to reduce the number of people who smoke.
Each new initiative has been successful. Measurable drops in both the number of people who smoke and the amount of tobacco they consume have occurred each time a new initiative was introduced.
The recent increase in excise tax is another prime example.
However, overall reduction has been slow and massive inequities remain. While New Zealanders of European descent have the lowest rates of smoking-related disease and early death, other ethnicities suffer far more from the effects of tobacco.
That is why we need to step up our work to get the number of smokers down.
The next logical step in that journey is to remove retail tobacco displays from dairies, petrol stations and supermarkets.
There is now strong evidence that removing tobacco displays both discourages young people from taking up the habit and supports those people who have decided to quit and remain smoke-free.
New Zealand was once a leader in tobacco control but now lags behind many other OECD countries. UK, Canada, most Australian states and several Scandinavian countries have already passed legislation to remove tobacco displays.
We had an opportunity when the Health Select Committee recommended a similar legislation. Sadly, the current Government refused to comply, citing a lack of international evidence.
That evidence is now available in spades, as is another opportunity to tackle this issue.
Parliament will debate my proposed statute, The Smoke-Free Environments (Removing Tobacco Displays) Amendment Bill on October 20, 2010.
I hope the Government would do the right thing this time and vote in its favour to improve the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders.
Removing tobacco displays does not restrict the right of individuals who wish to continue smoking. Nothing will change for them. It costs the Government nothing and should not impact heavily on retailers who should be supported in the transition by the tobacco companies who supply them.
Removing tobacco displays will help young people make the right choice not to smoke. It will help those who have made the choice to quit to stay smoke-free.
It is the next step in the package of initiatives needed to take us further along the path to a nation free from the harm caused by tobacco. It is just the right thing to do.
Ian Lees-Galloway is Member of Parliament elected from Palmerston North on Labour Ticket. He is the Party’s Associate Spokesperson for Health (Drugs & Alcohol).
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