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On The Government’s Smokefree Laws Debacle

The most charitable explanation for National’s behaviour over the smokefree legislation is that they have dutifully fulfilled the wishes of the Big Tobacco lobby and then cast around – incompetently, as it turns out - for excuses that might sell this health policy U-turn to the public.

The less charitable view is that the government was being deliberately misleading. Are we to think Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is a fool, or a liar? It seems rather early on in his term of office to be facing that unpleasant choice. Yet when Luxon (and senior MP Chris Bishop) tried to defend the indefensible with the same wildly inaccurate claim, there are not a lot of positive explanations left on the table. Either they were too lazy to fact check the flimsy excuses they were presenting, or they were intentionally trying to mislead the public. Or both.

Here's how the NZ Herald covered the debacle:

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says he wasn’t trying to mislead the public when claiming Labour’s smokefree laws would see just one store in Northland selling tobacco despite the true figure being 35.

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In defending the new Government’s decision to scrap Labour’s smokefree policies Luxon this week said that plan would have seen only one store being able to sell tobacco products in all of Northland and it would become a target for crime. Official documents published by the director-general of health stated there would instead be 35, including 17 in town and city centres and 18 in rural areas.

Luxon has now said he made a “mistake” and apologised. Yet Luxon and Bishop didn’t simply get a single figure wrong. They are still aiming to scrap the legislation, regardless of what the scientific research says. Their whole rationale for scrapping our smokefree laws relied on the false figure, as Luxon had initially emphasised:

“We think it’s wrong, for example, to have a single store in Northland as a target for crime and ram raids, and for gangs and to ultimately drive into a bigger black market,” Luxon said during the post-Cabinet press conference last Wednesday.

(Embarrassingly, Bishop tried to repeat the same message lines on the weekend, to a sceptical Jack Tame on Q&A.)

Every year, some 5,000 New Zealanderes die from the effects of smoking. There is a compelling case for ( a) gradually reducing the number of tobacco outlets and for (b) reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes. The coalition agreements reverse both those trends. The new government is flying in the face of solid scientific evidence on these matters.

Tobacco Lobbying Never Sleeps

A few months ago, it emerged that the dairy owners’ outreach to Parliament against the legislation was being financed by Big Tobacco. The dairy owners had ended up in Luxon’s corner after National had talked tough on crime, ram raids and gangs. As payback, National is now doing its best to keep as many dairy owners selling tobacco products for as long as possible, regardless of the known threat to public health. Should we be surprised to find that the centre-right is putting economic returns ahead of peoples’ lives? Plainly, we were very fortunate that National and ACT were not in charge of the pandemic response.

Luxon, Bishop and their advisers have seized on a couple of relatively minor and containable issues – the black market in cigarettes, the potential security threat to a minority of dairies – and deliberately inflated them into being gigantic problems, in order to justify the gutting of the smokefree laws altogether. In reality, there have been years and years of smokefree efforts to reduce smoking demand and to gradually limit the number of tobacco outlets. Dairy owners have had ample warning that the life cycle of their reliance on selling tobacco products is coming to an end.

Despite Luxon’s alarm bells, the consistent decline in tobacco outlets has not seen the black market for cigarettes expand significantly in tandem. Today, the black market is estimated to comprise only 7% of total cigarette sales. There is no reason to think this figure would suddenly explode unless the anti-smoking laws get canned.

Secondly, National can’t have it both ways on law and order. It has relentlessly talked up its crackdown on gangs and its tough law and order stance, and touted its ability to make communities feel safe. That being so, it can’t simultaneously claim that a National-led government would be impotent to defend the relatively small number of dairy owners at risk from cigarette-driven ram raids - such that it has no option but to accept -or expand-) the number of tobacco outlets all over the country, in order to spread the risk.

There’s a wider problem. The coalition government is pursuing a divisive, controversial policy programme. The public need to be sure that when the Prime Minister is speaking, he knows when he is talking nonsense and when he isn’t. That seems a very low benchmark, but Luxon is consistently failing it.

Footnote One: Keep in mind that this was not a solitary “mistake.” Luxon has a pattern of being a stranger to the truth on smoking issues. During the televised campaign leaders debates, he made this sweeping claim:

Every single health outcome has gone backwards under Chris Hipkins government," Luxon said."Six years, not one has improved for Māori or for non-Māori."

That assertion was completely untrue. On RNZ, reporter Ella Stewart cited in rebuttal Labour’s track record of bringing down lung cancer rates, and also the smoking rates among Maori:

Lung cancer is the second leading cause of death for Māori in Aotearoa. But according to the Ministry of Health, rates of lung disease for Māori have come down. In 2017, the rate per 100,000 people was 79.9 for Māori. By 2019, it was down to 68.4. This also aligns with smoking rates among Māori dropping... In 2017/18, the smoking rate for Māori adults was 35.3 percent. By 2021/22, it was down to 20.9 percent (approximately 127,000 people).

Footnote Two: Luxon’s disinterest in mastering the basic facts in any policy area has been evident before, over say, his changing public positions on the Clean Car Discount. He was against it, then for it, then against it again after his advisers told him he had “mis-spoke.” Similarly, Luxon called for public transport to become self-sufficient, until his advisers corrected him, again. Luxon seems willing to spin a political narrative, without getting the supportive facts even remotely correct. The new PM seems to be an ideological fantasist.

Footnote Three: What I will say is… The smokefree laws episode has given birth to a new political euphemism: “We didn’t express it the way that we should have...” Luxon said when admitting his latest “mistake”. Right. So... When politicians are caught out in a lie and/or in willfully misleading the public, they can confess, hand on heart, that they “didn’t express it the way they should have.”

Footnote Four: Apology or otherwise, Luxon remains wedded to the idea that in some parts of Northland there is - or could conceivably be, who knows? - only one outlet peddling tobacco products. And that somehow, poses an overwhelming problem for the nation as a whole.

Hmm. The fact that in some remote parts of Northland there might be only one dairy or only one service station is hardly big news, and IMO it doesn’t expose the market for tobacco in these isolated places to the ravages of organised crime.

Such places are small because hey, not many people live there. Just as the dairy owners in those localities are not millionaires, neither would there be big bucks to be made by anyone bothering to make a criminal takeover bid for the miniscule (and declining) tobacco market in those places.

In short, National is not making sense. The situation looks like what it is: the selling out of public health to lobbyists from Big Tobacco.

Conclusion, inconclusive

Not only is the duo called @ the least search-friendly band name of all time, but they sound like elves singing privately to each other at the bottom of the garden. Some harmonies and melodies on their Mind Palace Music album can be traced back to 1960s folk pop. “Friendship is Frequency” in particular, sounds like a demo for an imaginary Mamas and Papas track. A lower intensity, less fey version of the Roches also comes to mind. Here’s “Where’d You Put Me:”

And here’s “Letters”

And finally, the “Friendship is Frequency” track marks the closest point to radio-friendly outreach:

Friend waves are all around

Put your ear to the ground

When you're feeling down

Our lives are lines on a spectrograph...[Really?]

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