New Zealand's plans to ban smoking for future generations were hailed globally as a breath of fresh air last year. Now, the country is making headlines worldwide again over the new government's plans to repeal those laws.

It's the latest development in a near 25-year-long effort to make Aotearoa smokefree.

Once upon a time, there was pretty much nowhere you couldn't smoke. In fact, if you're old enough, you probably remember a time when people could even smoke on planes.

It meant that not only were there a lot of smokers, there was also a lot of passive smoking going on — that is, people who were inadvertently inhaling smoke from other people's cigarettes.

But by 1989, 273 deaths a year were attributed to passive smoking and calls to ban smoking were growing.

A key law passes

The Smoke-free Environments Act passed in 1990. This would eventually become the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act.

Initially, it placed restrictions on smoking in indoor spaces and also banned smoking on public transport.

The Act also banned the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 16 and placed regulations on the marketing and advertising of tobacco, including the sponsorship of events.

More regulations

By the mid-'90s, retailers had to remove tobacco signs in shops.

Tobacco company sponsorships also ended both in New Zealand and Australia, meaning competitions and trophies like the Rothmans National League, Benson and Hedges World Series and the Winfield Cup were well and truly a thing of the past.

Age limit raised

The Smoke-Free Environments Amendment Act passed into law in 1997, which raised the legal age for buying tobacco products from 16 to 18.

More spaces become smokefree

More anti-smoking legislation came into force in 2004, meaning schools and early childhood centres had to become smokefree.

Smoking inside at places like bars, restaurants and clubs also became illegal, as did smoking in offices, factories and warehouses.

In 2011, prisons also became smokefree when a law change prohibited prisoners from having tobacco products, matches or lighters.

Tackling tobacco packaging

A lot of regulatory work has focused on the packaging of cigarettes and other tobacco products, with health warnings appearing on them in 2008.

Ten years later, plain packaging for tobacco products was introduced. Plain packaging is designed to reduce the appeal of the products while also making health warning messages more noticeable.

Banning future generations from smoking

A Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan was launched late last year with some of the strictest anti-smoking measures in the world.

Those measures included slashing the number of stores allowed to sell cigarettes to just 600 around the country and reducing the amount of nicotine in tobacco products. These measures were due to take effect from July 2024 and April 2025, respectively.

But one of the biggest measures was banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009, effectively raising the legal smoking age each year. This measure was due to become law from January 2027.

However, the country will no longer see those measures introduced.

The new coalition government has said it will repeal those regulations before they can take effect. It said it had concerns about a black market for cigarettes or shops becoming targets for ramraids if there was a large reduction in retail outlets able to sell tobacco.

Revenue from continued cigarette sales will also now be used to help fund National's proposed tax cuts.

The Treasury had said a reduction in the number of shops selling tobacco products could mean a significant drop in Crown revenue.

On the other hand, modelling has shown the previous government's smokefree regulations would have saved more than $1 billion in health system costs over the coming years. It also concluded that health inequities between Māori and non-Māori would have been dramatically reduced.

But for now, the status quo will remain when it comes to the country's smoking laws, although National said it's still committed to reducing smoking rates.


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