New Zealand has reversed its decision to implement the world's toughest anti-smoking law, to the disappointment of many inside and outside the island nation. But how are other laws aimed at tobacco use faring around the world?
Updated Nov. 27, 2023 at 6:50 p.m.
In 2022, New Zealand announced that the country would enact a pioneering anti-smoking law that would ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008. The decision was hailed by health activists as a radical and righteous measure that would help prevent the deaths of millions every year.
But only one year later, New Zealand has backtracked on it its toughest-in-the-world anti-tobacco stance.
The laws were due to be implemented from July 2024, but in an attempt to fund tax cuts, New Zealand's new government scrapped this idea completely over the weekend, triggering the outrage of many health activists in the country and head-scratching elsewhere.
While New Zealand's shock decision is a major step back for anti-tobacco campaigners in the nation of 5.2 million, many other countries have been busy implementing laws to combat the associated health risks of cigarettes. One of the reasons that this cause has been accelerated in recent years is the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the risk of impacted lungs through respiratory issues caused by the coronavirus.
Here’s a deeper look into New Zealand's decision and the ways in which other countries have joined the fight.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of quitting smoking given cigarettes’ impact on lungs
New Zealand's lost aims
The original motivation behind New Zealand’s ban was to decrease deaths caused by smoking, which is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the country. In particular, the Indigenous Maori population is disproportionately impacted, with the highest rates of smoking and affiliated diseases in the country.
Hapai Te Hauora, a National Maori health organization, called the decision to reverse the laws an "unconscionable blow to the health and wellbeing of all New Zealanders", with public health officials calling its consequences "catastrophic" for the Maori population.
The legislation would have effectively created a "smoke-free" generation
The legislation would have effectively created a "smoke-free" generation, starting from those born after 2008. The outlawing focuses on young people because this is when they often pick up a hard to break nicotine habit. The reforms gained international acclaim for their projected efficacy, with measures including the limiting the number of stores that are allowed to sell cigarettes and decreasing their addictive nicotine content. It was projected to save up to 5000 lives a year and $5 billion in the health industry for not needing too treat cigarette-caused illnesses.
But this was all the plan of the past government, which lost on Oct. 14 to the National party by 38% of votes. The new Prime Minister Chris Luxon had not included the reversal of the anti-smoking laws into his campaign, but he had previously argued that a ban would lead to the rise of a tobacco black market. Still, despite this step back, New Zealand aims to reduce its smoking rates by 5% by 2025, with the goal of one day eliminating it all together.
Bhutan ban creates black market
Bhutan made waves in 2010 by ending the distribution, manufacturing and selling of tobacco. (Controlled imports were allowed with hefty fines.) The small Himalayan kingdom has a long history of tobacco regulation, with its first control law passed in 1729. Such controls have widespread support in the majority Buddhist nation, where the tobacco plant is believed to have grown from a demoness’ blood and smoking is viewed as sinful.
In the face of prohibitions, a black market has thrived, with cigarettes smuggled from neighboring India. Consequently, while other countries strengthened their smoking restrictions during the pandemic, Bhutan actually loosened its 2010 ruling; Bhutan had few COVID-19 cases compared to India, and despite having closed its borders, infections were coming in from abroad.
So Prime Minister Lotay Tshering (a doctor who still practices on weekends) decided to lift the ban on tobacco sales (now allowed at state-owned outlets) to limit potential disease spreading. Although, Prime Minister Tshering clarified these measures are temporary.
Some countries placed restrictions on cigarette packaging
Success story in Costa Rica
After years of next to no regulation largely due to the influence of the tobacco industry and the popularity of smoking in the region, Costa Rica adopted one of the world’s strictest smoking laws in 2012. The Central American country banned cigarette usage in the majority of public and private buildings and many outdoor spaces, while also not allowing separate "no smoking areas."
The legislation, which also placed restrictions on cigarette packaging and advertising, led to a 49% increase in the price of cigarettes, with demand continuing to decrease in the years since: In 2018, 11.1% of the age 20+ population used tobacco products, compared to 14.2% in 2010, according to Costa Rica’s Social Security System.
Further, Costa Rican cigarette production ended in 2018 and it has joined the World Health Organization’s list of countries that have been most successful in reaching tobacco-control goals. Costa Rica has recently fortified its standards, halting electronic cigarette and vapes use in public and placing a tax on these devices that will benefit care for tobacco-related diseases.
California leads in United States cigarette sales bans
Urban areas in the most populous U.S. state are increasing restrictions on various tobacco products. In September, San Jose became the largest American city to make the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes illegal. The goal was to prevent consumption by teens drawn to the sweet varieties; the ordinance also places limits on new shops opening near schools, community centers and libraries.
Although, these sorts of embargoes can have unexpected negative consequences; for example, when San Francisco residents voted to end the sale of flavored nicotine and tobacco items, the rates of teens smoking traditional cigarettes increased. While none of these products are good for lung health, vaping is less harmful. Still, San Francisco, the home of e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, went on to ban all e-cigarette sales in 2019.
Elsewhere, the upscale municipality of Beverly Hills effectively blocked cigarette sales within city limits at the start of 2021. The ordinance was passed unanimously by the Beverly Hills City Council, allowing cigarette sales only at hotels and cigar lounges. The Los Angeles County enclave has long been a pioneer in tobacco regulation as the first California city to stop cigarette smoking in restaurants more than 30 years ago.
Urban areas in the most populous U.S. state are increasing restrictions on various tobacco products
Japan, smoke-free city wards from Tokyo to Kyoto
Like many Asian countries, Japan had a smoking culture that has been a hard habit to break. But cities have taken measures over the past two decades to make it harder to light up. Selected wards in Tokyo have prohibit smoking on the streets.
Kyoto has banned cigarettes on 7.1 kilometers of its streets
Yet perhaps the toughest big city in the world on public smoking is Kyoto, which has banned cigarettes on 7.1 kilometers of its streets, and has police officers patrolling parks and other public spaces, handing out 1,000 yen ($8) fines. Of course, the other deterrent is prices, which are going up in Japan and elsewhere in large part because major new taxes have been levied on the sale of tobacco projects.
In April of 2020 a new smoking law made it illegal to consume cigarettes indoors, with the exception of private homes, hotel rooms, selected small-sized restaurants and cigar bars. To reduce the social incentive to smoke, the government is constantly attempting to make the number of establishments where smoking is permitted smaller and smaller.