blowing smoke

New Zealand's new cigarette law is fighting the wrong war

Tobacco companies are moving to smokeless products, and that is how they will create the next generation of addicts
New Zealand's new cigarette law is fighting the wrong war
Photo: Phil Walter (Getty Images)
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New Zealand passed a law on Dec. 13 permanently banning the sale of cigarettes to anyone born in 2009 or after, essentially elevating the legal smoking age year after year. In 2023, children will need to be 15 or older to buy cigarettes. In 2024, they’ll have to be 16—and so on, until in 2050 the minimum legal age will be 42.

The country will also reduce the number of stores allowed to sell cigarettes to a maximum of 600 across the country of 5 million.  

This is the world’s second-toughest anti-smoking law after Bhutan’s, which banned tobacco completely in 2010. It shows a determination to curb cigarette smoking in a country that already has one of the lowest rate of smokers anywhere—only 8% of Kiwis smoke—yet sees a high concentration of smokers among Māoris (22.3% of adults, and 24% of women) and Pasifikas (17% of adults).

The approach—focused on the creation of a so-called smoke-free generation—misses an important point, however: Cigarettes are already a waning choice for tobacco consumption. It’s instead smoke-free products such as vapes, e-cigarettes, or heated tobacco, that will create the next generation of nicotine addicts.

Smoking is out, vaping is in

There are about a billion smokers in the world. But while the market is still growing in some places—in Africa, in particular, smoking is increasing, including among young users—there are many countries where a combination of taxation, public health warnings, education, and limitations on public smoking have drastically reduced the number of smokers. New Zealand is one of them: The percentage of people smoking has decreased by more than half in the last decade, going from 16.4% in 2012 to 8% in 2022.

This however doesn’t actually mean that tobacco consumption has gone down in New Zealand. The share of tobacco consumption lost by widespread cigarette regulations was essentially replaced by smoke-free products. While these products don’t always use tobacco directly, they deliver nicotine, which is derived by the plant, and are therefore considered a new generation of tobacco products. 

Modes of nicotine consumption such as vaping or heating are gaining popularity fast. In the US, for instance, a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that as many as 20% of 12th graders in the US (typically aged 17 and 18) vaped daily, compared to as little as 12% who smoked.

New Zealand is following the same trend. In 2021, a survey published in the New Zealand Journal of Public Health found that vaping has a higher appeal than smoking among younger people. These aren’t former smokers: 80% of the teenagers who vaped at some point, and 50% of regular vapers had never smoked a cigarette before they began vaping, which voids claims of harm reduction associated with transitioning from cigarettes to smoke-free products.

The future of tobacco

Cigarette companies expect this to be the broader trend, which is why they are progressively investing in smoke-free products. Some, notably Philip Morris International (PMI), are already planning to move away from cigarettes altogether in the near future, and are investing instead in smoke-free tobacco products.

PMI is planning to derive a majority of its sales from products other than cigarettes as soon as 2025, though the company claims they will only convert current smokers—who won’t quit—to potentially less harmful, if equally addictive, smokeless products. They won’t, they say, look for new tobacco users.

The transition to these products as harm reduction is encouraged by New Zealand’s plan toward a smoke-free generation, but the sales of vapes and similar products—which are marketed to be fun and trendy—is likely to convert young people to tobacco use, too, not just move current smokers toward less harmful consumption.

While smoke-free tobacco products are likely less harmful than cigarettes, they are not shown to help quit tobacco use, and still carry health risks including lung disease, potential exposure to toxic substances, and harm to brain development and fetal health, not to mention the lifestyle and economic consequences of a highly addictive product. Further, smoke-free tobacco products are relatively young, and lack the long-term research that established the harmful impacts of smoking.