One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 14, 2023

Hundreds rally against ‘anti-health’ smokefree law repeal

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Doctors, nurses, public health experts and members of the public gathered yesterday in Wellington and Auckland to protest the u-turn on New Zealand’s world-leading smokefree law. Gabi Lardies and Stewart Sowman-Lund were there.

Hats off to the poetic genius behind the chants that rang out between Auckland Hospital and the Act Party’s Epsom office yesterday afternoon. They started relatively tame: “Hey, hey. Ho, ho – Shane Ciga-reti’s got to go,” and “We don’t want your tax cuts, funded by cigarette butts.” Then progressed to “Nicotine Will-is, all she wants to do is kill us.”

At 1pm on Wednesday, hundreds of doctors, nurses, public health experts and members of the public, rallied by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists – Toi Mata Hauora and Health Coalition Aotearoa, gathered in Wellington and Auckland to protest the new government’s repeal of the smokefree law. In Wellington they handed a petition to parliament signed by nearly 50,000 New Zealanders.

The regulations to be repealed would have taken cigarettes out of most dairies, lowered the nicotine levels in cigarettes, and denied sales to anyone born in and after 2009. Since they were put on the chopping block in the government’s coalition negotiations, health organisations, doctors and other health experts have spoken out about the risks to public health and the damage to New Zealand’s standing on the world stage.

In Auckland, Marnie Wilton of Vape-Free Kids NZ said the repeal made her angry, and “some other words, but my children are here.” (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

On parliament’s steps, former health minister Ayesha Verrall received the petition on behalf of the opposition. “Today, standing side by side with many of our health professionals at parliament in unison with further supporters in Auckland, we made a resounding call for the government to come to its senses and stop its repeal of the smokefree legislation,” Verrall said. Others who attended in support included Labour’s Peeni Henare and Willie Jackson, Te Pāti Māori’s Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Hana Rawhiti-Maipi Clarke, and the Greens’ Huhana Lyndon, some of whom also addressed the rally. Former MP Hone Harawira, now in the National Smokefree Taskforce, also spoke, labelling members of the government a “bunch of arseholes” for their moves to repeal the law.

A crowd, several hundreds strong, in front of the Beehive. (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

In Auckland a few hundred supporters clustered around a small PA system on the corner of Park Road and Domain Drive. Professor Boyd Swinburn, chair of Health Coalition Aotearoa, shared the results of a new Talbot Mills poll showing that 67% of New Zealanders support the smokefree law, garnering a loud cheer from the crowd. In the next breath Swinburn addressed “Mr Luxon”, telling him that 64% of National voters support the laws too. A cheer came for this number too, though less enthusiastically. Later, “shame” echoed through the crowd when he called the repeal “anti-democratic” and “anti-health”.

Next to speak was Donald Mackenzie Mayo, a young junior doctor who graduated just days ago. “I’m also naturally a nerd,” he said, before adding some numbers to Swinburn’s. The first, 5,000: the number of people who die every year from tobacco-driven diseases in New Zealand. The second, 8,000: the number of lives the laws could save in the next 20 years. Then, 46 billion – dollars, that is – the amount of taxpayer money that could the law could save through direct healthcare savings and improved productivity (since healthy people can work more). “That’s what boosting our economy truly looks like,” he said. Despite all the dire numbers, Mayo charmed the crowd, especially in the moment “Winston Seymour and David Peters” came out of his mouth. 

Donald Mackenzie Mayo, ‘angry and betrayed’ by the repeal, speaks at the entrance to Auckland Domain. (Photo: Gabi Lardies).

Both Swinburn and Mayo noted that the repeals and reasoning behind it seem to mirror tobacco industry talking points, which Swinburn called “horrendous” and Mayo “outrageous” and “scaremongering”. Another of Mayo’s numbers was zero: “the zero pieces of letters of evidence the government has provided that black market tobacco and crime would skyrocket if these measures were kept. There is not one study, not one piece of evidence they can cite.”

Next up David Letele, the boxer turned community leader, got the crowd going. “What I see is a government that will be bad for Māori, bad for Pasifika and bad for anyone poor,” he said, noting that in deprived neighbourhoods there are more cigarettes to buy, more unhealthy food outlets and more alcohol shops: “we have been overrun”.

A peep through the media scrum as David Letele performs a haka. (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

“Make no mistake about it, team, we have a fight on our hands,” said Letele. “It’s a fight against the government making poor decisions. It’s a fight against bad employers, bad landlords, bad health given by businesses pushing bad products like alcohol, fizzy drinks, bad food, cigarettes and vapes.” Joined by a group of strong-looking people in BBM – Buttabean Motivation t-shirts and vests, Letele performed a rousing haka. A scrum of reporters and camera operators unfortunately obscured the view for most of the crowd.

The cluster narrowed to a long line, two or three abreast, as the rally made its way to the Act Party’s Epsom office on narrow footpaths. This reporter spotted many hospital ID cards on lanyards, a handful of purple New Zealand Nurses Organisation flags and red Unite Union ones, heaps of handmade placards, tino rangatiratanga draped over shoulders, and a stray Labour party flag. Toots, waves and smiles came from passing cars.

Placards and chanting in the carpark of Act HQ. (Photo: Gabi Lardies).

In the backstreets of the Newmarket shopping district a yell rang out from the sidelines. “You wanna let the gangs control them?” came a catcall from a detractor in a pale pink button-up shirt. “You’re the first!” retorted someone holding a placard reading PROTECT OUR SMOKEFREE LAWS. “I knew the minority would speak out soon enough. Why don’t you read the numbers mate?”

The line reformed into a rally in the carpark of a mirrored-glass office building at 27 Gillies Avenue. They knew David Seymour wasn’t there, but a new chant arose regardless: “David Smokemore, we don’t want you any more.”

Keep going!