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OPINIONSocietyOctober 14, 2021

Make cigarettes nicotine-free and we’ll stub out smoking for good

Cigarette butts
Staying at a dairy near you (Image: Getty Images)

A game-changing move to make cigarettes non-addictive will be a decisive nail in the coffin of smoking harm in New Zealand, write professors of public health Richard Edwards and Chris Bullen.

Big tobacco has long known it is in the nicotine delivery business. The addictive substance grabs new customers and ensures they get trapped in a purchasing loop even as ill-health takes hold.

Associate minister of health Ayesha Verrall’s Smokefree Action Plan sets to change that by making New Zealand the first country to slash nicotine levels in cigarettes.

The plan proposes cutting nicotine levels to less than a tenth of the current amount of nicotine per cigarette, leaving less than one milligram inside each smoke.

With nicotine at such minute levels, no matter how much a person smokes there will be no “rush” from the addictive substance – it will be insufficient to have any effect.

The cravings itch will remain unscratched, allowing people to recognise cigarettes for what they are: expensive, chemical-laden, cancer-causing sticks.

Studies show when nicotine is removed people find they smoke fewer cigarettes and find it easier to quit. It frees people who cannot quit due to addiction and makes it less likely younger people will progress into long-term users.

This helps people move to less harmful means to satisfy the addiction such as vape products and patches which will work in tandem with Verrall’s plan, as some will be unable to give up nicotine altogether.

Giving people access to these safer sources of nicotine is important when cigarette changes are made and new restrictions on purchasing ages, available flavours, marketing and packaging will make them less appealing.

Ideally people are able to curb vaping as well but it is a far better alternative to combustible cigarettes.

To date, no country has managed to end the addictiveness of cigarettes in this way with this bold, science-based approach.

Verrall’s action plan promises to be a great leap forward in tobacco control. It is a comprehensive plan which provides New Zealand with an arsenal of cigarette-harm reducing measures that complement nicotine removal.

Removing filters – which research has shown do nothing to reduce the harm from smoking – makes cigarettes less appealing. Reducing the availability of cigarettes makes them harder to come by and less available to young people. Providing enhanced cessation services and increasing media campaigns further encourages and supports people who smoke to quit.

Importantly, the plan prioritises improving Māori health and eliminating the disparities caused by smoking by strengthening Māori governance of efforts to eliminate it.

With these measures in place, a Smokefree Aotearoa looks attainable.

So what stands in the way? The answer is the tobacco industry and its allies. Already dairies are being mobilised by Big Tobacco via postcard campaigns. Tobacco industry submissions to the consultation oppose every proposed policy measure.

New Zealand now has an opportunity to channel its legacy of standing up in the face of political bullies. Someone must be the first to make the change – so why not us?

Submissions to the Smokefree Action Plan closed in May. Submissions are being analysed and a final Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan will be published shortly.

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