New Zealand plans to completely ban smoking for the next generation

The Smokefree 2025 Action Plan would prevent those who are 14 or younger today from ever legally buying cigarettes.

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The government has previously used graphic messaging on smoke packs (pictured) and raised taxes to reduce tobacco smoking. 

Jason Oxenham/Stringer

Over the past two years, New Zealand has been praised for its ability to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now the country's government is tackling another health scourge: tobacco smoking. On Thursday, it announced an ambitious plan that would be the world's toughest on tobacco buying and consumption.

Under the Smokefree 2025 Action Plan, the age requirement for buying and smoking tobacco will increase each year. The plan is structured so that those who are 14 or younger now will never legally be able to purchase tobacco. To reduce the damage smoking causes for those unaffected by the ban, the legal nicotine strength in cigarettes will be greatly reduced in 2025, and only selected retailers will be able to sell them. 

"Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in New Zealand and causes one in four cancers," said Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall. "We've already seen the full impact of excise tax increases. The Government recognizes that going further will not help people quit, it will only further punish smokers who are struggling to kick the habit. That's why, our plan, released today contains new measures to help us get to our goal."

The plan has yet to be officially legislated but is expected to pass easily due to the ruling Labor Party's parliamentary majority. 

Though many countries have implemented laws designed to curb tobacco consumption, such as Bhutan's 2004 law that made smoking in public places illegal, New Zealand would be the first country to outlaw smoking tobacco entirely. New Zealand's government says that 5,000 people die each year from direct and second-hand smoking, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that number is 480,000 in the US. (The US population is roughly 66 times the size of New Zealand's.) The CDC adds that $300 billion is spent on treating smoking-related illnesses each year. 

"The Action Plan is very good news," said Chris Bullen, a professor of public health at the University of Auckland. "If implemented as outlined, it could just be the single most significant step we take as a nation to reducing preventable death and disease and reducing health inequities in the next few years."  

There is a slight asterisk in New Zealand's plan in that vaping won't be affected by the new laws. "We see vaping being used by people as a tool to stop smoking, and that enables us to push ahead with further activity to reduce down smoking because there is an alternative," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told journalists on Thursday