Tobacco tax hikes a form of 'racism', says expert

NEW Zealand's leading Maori tobacco researcher says further tax increases on smokers have become a racist policy that is discriminating against Maori, mental health patients and others.

Dr Marewa Glover, who has spent 23 years in tobacco research and supported further tax increases as recently as last year, says she has changed her mind because the tax increases of 10 per cent a year since 2010 have had no significant effect on smoking rates for the two biggest smoking groups - Maori and Pacific people.

Last week's Budget said the policy of raising taxes by 10 per cent a year would continue until 2020, lifting the price of a typical pack of cigarettes to $30.

It follows a similar approach by the Australian government.

"My support was contingent on a reduction in smoking, especially for Maori women, and that hasn't happened," said Dr Glover, an associate professor at Massey University.

The 2014-15 NZ Health Survey found the numbers of Maori women smoking daily fell only slightly over the past nine years, from 41.8 per cent in 2006-07 to 40 per cent.

The rate for Pacific women actually increased, from 19.7 per cent to 20.6 per cent.

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The rates for Maori and Pacific men dropped more. But even those changes were not statistically significant because of small sample sizes.

Smoking rates for Europeans and Asians did drop significantly.

Dr Glover said anti-smoking policies such as the higher taxes, and recent decisions by Wellington and Hutt councils to ban smoking in open public spaces, were now effectively a form of discrimination.

"It is now illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of ethnicity, age, mental illness or sexuality, but there is this handy tool now which is smoking, which [is] concentrated with higher prevalence amongst the 'undesirables'.

"So people are now, I believe, using smoking as a legitimate and legal way to ... discriminate against people."

She said Maori, and especially Maori women, had the highest smoking rates "because of the cumulative stress of the environment".

She said it was time for a more compassionate policy.

However Otago University public health professor Nick Wilson said tax rises did cut smoking rates and should be pursued with other measures such as reducing tobacco outlets.

He said the Budget's further tax hikes would reduce the daily smoking rate in 2020 from 22.7 per cent if taxes had been frozen at current levels to 21.4 per cent for Maori, and from 9.3 per cent to 8.9 per cent for non-Maori.

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