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Cancer Society Staff Feeling Down But Not Out About Smokefree Laws Repeal

Cancer Society staff working up and down the country are heart-broken at the thought of decades of hard work for a smokefree future going up in smoke but refuse to give up.

Rebecca Gilbert, Health Promotion Manager for Cancer Society’s Auckland Northland Division, says when she heard the news of the Government’s plans to repeal Aotearoa’s world-leading smokefree legislation she felt eight years of her hard work disintegrate before her eyes.

“I joined Cancer Society in 2018 after working as a local iwi smoking cessation practitioner. I saw the impact of nicotine addiction on not only the individuals who were using tobacco but on their whānau and in the community, so in my new role I quickly absorbed the advocacy mahi in tobacco harm,” says Rebecca. “If this repeal goes through despite raising our voice in opposition, we will have lost ground to save our future generations – our mokopuna, our grandchildren of tomorrow.”

Rebecca has worked closely with Patu Puauahi, the Te Tai Tokerau smokefree network, and managed all submissions to advocate for the new smokefree laws. She was also involved in a presentation to now Health Minister Dr Shane Reti while he was in opposition and says he showed support for the new laws, in particular the denicotisation of cigarettes.

“Dr Reti expressed an interest in protecting whānau from the harms of tobacco, but we now see that National has broken its promise to Māori and the result will be that our people will continue to die in the thousands over the coming years,” says Rebecca.

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Head of Cancer Prevention and Research for Cancer Society Canterbury-West Coast/Otago-Southland Martin Witt, has been working in the smokefree space for 25 years. He said his overall reflection is “one of profound regret” that those 47,000 people who signed Hapai Te Hauora’s petition presented at Parliament last week, would have been amongst the many in Aotearoa who celebrated our globally leading tobacco legislation being passed this time last year. 

“A year later we have a new Prime Minister who in his own words is ‘determined that Māori are going to do better’ under his Government, yet almost the first action he agrees to will do the very reverse.”

Charlie Poihipi, Iwi Partnership Manager for the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Division says he had envisioned a future without every corner store selling tobacco for his children and mokopuna – one very different to the one he grew up in.

“I grew up in the era where, as a child, you could walk into a dairy under the age of 10 with a note from your parent and the shop teller would give you a packet of smokes. By the time I was 11 years old, myself and many of the children I grew up with would start smoking, leading to several years of addiction, for others a lifetime, of poor physical and mental health.”

Charlie has since spent several years working in tobacco control, advocating for the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act to protect the tamariki of the future.

“After hearing the Government’s plan on repealing the smokefree laws, my puku (tummy) turns at the thought of the many years so many people have worked to get a world-class smokefree law passed, bravely pushing through many barriers and push-backs from tobacco lobbyists and associates along the way, to see this just get poured down the drain for the benefit of making an extra dollar, at the expense of many more lost lives and ongoing poor health. People of Aotearoa deserve far better. Human lives, especially our tamariki, are far more important than profits.”

Wellington-based National Advisor - Cancer Prevention and Policy Emma Shields attended the rally outside Parliament buildings last week, proud to represent and stand with Cancer Society kaimahi (staff) alongside hundreds of allies in the health sector and impassioned individuals.

“We’ve been fighting for decades to control tobacco, the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the world. We urge the Government to listen to people affected by tobacco, health professionals and organisations like ours, all united with their call to stop the repeal. When this repeal gets hastily put to the House, we urge those in power to do the right thing and vote to stop the repeal,” says Emma.

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