High cost of living stressing people out, leading to more smoking, expert suggests

The AM Show 02/12/2019

People aren't quitting smoking despite the ever-rising cost because, ironically, they're stressed about the cost of living, an anti-smoking campaigner has suggested.

Every year since 2010, the Government has increased the tax it collects on cigarettes. Alongside other measures, it's resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of Kiwis smoking - from 20.7 percent at the 2006 census, to 13.2 percent last year. Smokers are also inhaling less - smoking on average 39 percent less tobacco last year than in 2010, Ministry of Health figures show.

But the rate of decline has slowed in recent years, ballooning the Government's tax take to almost $2 billion. 

New Zealand First, the minor partner in the coalition, says the tax "gouges the poor" and has "reached the limits of effectiveness". 

Mihi Blair of Māori health group Hāpai te Hauora told The AM Show on Monday it's a "significant" shift in thinking, which is backed up by what she's seen.

"Why aren't they giving up? There are a lot of things going on people's lives. I've travelled around Aotearoa and spoken to smokers - we're hearing that the pressures of living, the cost of living is actually really hard, and the stresses that come with that are pushing them to continue smoking."

The poor are far more likely to smoke than the well-off. 

The cost to taxpayers of smoking is disputed - while there are significant costs to the health system and lost productivity, smokers are also more likely to die earlier, saving on superannuation costs. One study in 2007 estimated the direct costs then were about $350 million, but other estimates have put the cost over $2 billion. 

Next month's excise increase is the last one currently scheduled. Blair says she wants more of the money raised to be funneled back into prevention measures.

"It was quite disappointing [Associate Health Minister Jenny] Salesa couldn't get that over the line in the last Budget. We're really hoping we do get more investment not only in stop-smoking services, but... more into education, more into health services... We need multiple approaches and support systems to help people quit, to reach our goal."

ACT is backing New Zealand First, leader David Seymour saying the tax take "outweighs the cost smokers impose on the community".

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Dan Satherley