The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Zealand to ban smoking by ensuring young teens today are never old enough to buy cigarettes

Experts say New Zealand may be on track to reduce the smoking rate among its population to 5 percent or below by 2025, after the government unveiled strict new measures Thursday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

New Zealand is planning to outlaw smoking for future generations, with new policies that include raising the age limit every year — meaning many people who are currently young teens will never be able to legally buy a cigarette.

Starting in 2027, the legal smoking age of 18 will be lifted one year every year — creating what the government calls a “smoke-free generation.” This would mean that people who turn 14 in 2023, when Wellington reportedly hopes the law will take effect, will always be a year younger than the legal limit and, the government hopes, less likely to suffer from lung cancer or cardiovascular disease.

“As they age, they and future generations will never be able to legally purchase tobacco, because the truth is there is no safe age to start smoking,” said Ayesha Verrall, a junior health minister in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s center-left Labour government.

Public health experts say the measure, bundled together with other new policies such as reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes and cutting back on the number of tobacco retailers, will set the Pacific nation on track to bringing its smoking rate down to less than 5 percent of the population.

No other country has attempted to cut down on the number of tobacco retailers or to reduce nicotine levels in such products, said Richard Edwards, who studies tobacco control at New Zealand’s University of Otago. “If we pull this off, it could act as an exemplar for how other countries could get rid of smoking.”

The plan does not have universal support in New Zealand, where daily smokers comprise about 9.4 percent of the adult population. That is a sharp reduction from about 16 percent a decade ago, when the country pledged to crack down on cigarettes.

Karen Chhour, a lawmaker who speaks on health issues for the libertarian-leaning Act party, compared the move to social engineering and said it would lead to a black market. “Prohibition has never worked — in any time or place — and it always has unintended consequences,” she said in a statement.

The new policies don’t directly address vaping, which has increasingly become popular among young people, and is seen by Wellington as much less harmful than smoking. These electronic gadgets, as well as many flavor packs, are sold only in specialized stores and only to those aged 18 and over.

America’s new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t

Wellington has imposed hefty taxes on cigarettes for years, making New Zealand one of the most expensive places in the world to smoke. It currently costs around 35 New Zealand dollars, or almost $24, to buy a pack of cigarettes, and Verrall said that further increases would only hurt those still addicted to tobacco.

New Zealand’s adult smoking rate is low compared with Europe and the United States, where about 14 percent of those over 18 regularly light up. But certain underprivileged demographics are disproportionately affected: 22.3 percent of Indigenous Maori adults smoke daily, while adults from economically deprived areas are six times as likely to become smokers than those from more well-off neighborhoods, government data shows.

“To quit smoking individually, it takes a lot of resources and support,” Andrew Waa, an expert in Indigenous tobacco use at Otago University. “We want to take the focus away from the smokers and make it the government’s problem."