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Ending the tobacco epidemic by phasing out sales

Ending the tobacco epidemic by phasing out sales

A group of New Zealand researchers says it is time to begin thinking about phasing out cigarette sales, not just reducing the level of smoking.

The researchers, from the University of Otago, Wellington, say that in New Zealand nearly all smoking could be halted over the next decade by the government imposing increasingly tight limits on the supply of commercial tobacco.

The public health researchers stress that such a move would be completely different from alcohol prohibition, as pharmaceutical products to deliver nicotine would be allowed, and would be made easier to access; while home-grown tobacco for personal use would remain legal.

In a presentation at the Asia Pacific Conference on Tobacco or Health in Sydney today, and in an article just published in the international journal Tobacco Control, the University of Otago researchers suggest a government-led strategy of six monthly 5% reductions in the amount of tobacco released to the market for sale (from 100% to 95% to 90% etc.). Tobacco manufacturers would periodically bid to the government for quota to allow sales.

“Setting a clear end date for commercial tobacco sales would be one of the best incentives for quitting,” says Dr George Thomson. “In addition, quitting would be further encouraged by tobacco prices rising to high levels, as supply diminished.”

The researchers argue that greatly increased support for smokers to quit, such as making nicotine replacement therapies easier to access, would need to be provided.

Professor Tony Blakely says: “It’s unethical to simply watch as thousands of people die each year due to smoking in New Zealand, whilst we wait for the gradual passing of the tobacco epidemic. We must put in place methods for a more predictable and faster end to smoking.”

He noted that recent modelling work by him and colleagues has shown that eliminating smoking could add an average three years for the European/Other population, and five years for M ori. This is a win-win, with both improving health for all and reducing health inequalities.

Associate Professor Nick Wilson says that while in some countries higher priced tobacco could result in increased smuggling, theft, and illegal sales, with appropriate management these problems would be negligible in a country like New Zealand.

“This country has one of the most effective border control operations in the world and so smuggling is unlikely to undermine this strategy.”

“The tobacco industry will try to scare the public with concerns about tobacco-related crime during a phase-out, but appropriate control measures, combined with the decline in demand for tobacco as smokers quit, mean that these issues are likely to be minor. They would be trivial compared to the 5000 deaths a year that occur due to the current tobacco epidemic.”

Professor Richard Edwards noted that research evidence from NZ surveys and in-depth discussions have found there is wide support for comprehensive actions to end the tobacco smoking epidemic among smokers and non-smokers. This includes support for ending the commercial sale of tobacco.

These findings fit with clear evidence that smokers mostly wish to quit, almost universally regret starting to smoke, and hope that their children will not become smokers.

A PDF copy of the publication can be obtained from:

Thomson G, Wilson N, Blakely T, Edwards R. Ending appreciable tobacco use in a nation: Using a sinking lid on supply. Tob Control 2010;19:431-435


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