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Philip Morris International (PMI) has announced its intentions to remove its combustible tobacco products from the New Zealand market as early as this year. Should we view this initiative as the beginning of the end for combustible tobacco products, or as another ploy of the industry to subvert public health policy development?
New Zealand has cemented itself as a leader in tobacco control in recent decades, and has been at the forefront of efforts to decrease the incidence of smoking – both nationally and globally. Given the sizeable proportion of smokers in New Zealand’s indigenous populations, public health experts in New Zealand have worked hard to decrease smoking in these hard-to-reach populations. Tobacco control efforts are not recent, as New Zealand has been doing so since the negotiations for adoption of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). I clearly remember the delegation of New Zealand standing firm and succeeding to include the word ‘peoples’ into the treaty to represent the heterogenicity of populations within their country and across the globe.
The question is, what impact will the announcement by PMI have on overall smoking rates in New Zealand? The answer may well depend on whom you ask.
Looking at things objectively, PMI has a market share of around 13% in the New Zealand market, much lower than British American Tobacco (67%) or Imperial (21%). For skeptics like myself, it is easy to imagine that if PMI brands were not available, smokers would switch to other brands and still smoke, leading to almost no net effect on smoking rates if business were to continue as usual.
In my opinion, this announcement by PMI should not be taken lightly or discarded as another effort by the Industry to divert attention from effective tobacco control measures. This notice should prompt us, as public health experts and tobacco control workers, to assess how we can use the announcement to accelerate the decline in smoking rates and assist New Zealand in achieving its 2025 targets for tobacco control through a consultative process involving all stakeholders, especially smokers and those affected by second-hand smoke.
New Zealand could certainly become the first combustible tobacco-free country by building on the tobacco control measures it has already achieved and by taking into account its regulatory environment. For example, the country has high tobacco taxation and a low dependence on tobacco taxes. It has already achieved declines in smoking prevalence and, due to its geographic location and strict border checks, does not have a large volume of illicit tobacco trade. These factors are also supported by the presence of a small number of local cigarette manufacturers and the very strong political will to make reduced risk products available to its population are other factors.
Therefore, I feel that New Zealand should strengthen its policies to discourage smokers from continuing to smoke [other brands] when PMI combustible tobacco products are no longer available. The smokers should be supported to make an informed choice, with policy makers and health services addressing their needs and providing them with solutions and methods to either quit completely or, if they find quitting difficult to do, to switch to reduced risk alternative nicotine delivery systems (ANDS).
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