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New Zealand cracks down on lighting up

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the fight against smoking, New Zealand has always been on the front lines. Back in 1990, it was one of the first countries to ban smoking in many workplaces. In 2004, it banned smoking in all restaurants and bars. And this week New Zealand passed a law that will ban tobacco sales for anyone born after 2008. This rolling lifetime prohibition is just one of some of the strictest measures ever taken by one country. The new legislation also sharply limits where tobacco can be sold and the amount of addictive nicotine cigarettes can contain. Chris Bostic has been following this news. He's policy director for Action on Smoking and Health, an NGO dedicated to global tobacco control. Welcome.

CHRIS BOSTIC: Thank you. It's good to be here.

SUMMERS: Good to have you. So, Chris, just to get started here, what is your reaction to this new law?

BOSTIC: Well, this is something we've been waiting for. We're very excited. We're hoping it will inspire other countries to follow suit, and several countries actually have said publicly that they're looking at what New Zealand is doing with an eye to doing it there. As a tobacco endgame policy, this is the first national example that we have. There's a number of cities that have done similar things but no country yet. So we've been waiting for this, and we're very excited.

SUMMERS: Just about 10% of adults smoke tobacco in New Zealand. After these measures go into effect next year, how much will they push down that number, by your estimate?

BOSTIC: Well, that's going to be tough because no one has done these measures at the national level before, so we don't know for sure, but I know what New Zealand is hoping for is to get it down to less than 5% by 2025. And that was a goal that they set back in 2010, and interestingly, they discovered about three years ago that they weren't going to make it using traditional tobacco control policies. And to their credit, rather than changing the goalposts, they changed their strategy.

SUMMERS: There are critics of this law, of course, and they've pointed to some of the potential unintended consequences, such as, say, fueling a black market for tobacco. That's what happened when the country Bhutan banned tobacco in 2004, and they ultimately ended up reversing the law. Do you think that something similar could possibly happen in New Zealand?

BOSTIC: Well, certainly, if there are disastrous consequences that were unforeseen, yes, I'm sure that New Zealand will rethink. I doubt that's going to happen. New Zealand is a likely candidate to be the first for this just given their island stature. It's going to be much easier for them to control their borders. You know, Bhutan didn't necessarily get rid of their ban on tobacco sales because of illicit trade per se. It was because of COVID. And they were worried that the black market routes getting into Bhutan were going to bring the virus in, and so that's why they rescinded that law.

SUMMERS: I wonder if you can tell us. How does vaping fit into this picture? Are regulators, to your knowledge, concerned that banning tobacco products will just push more young people to pick up vaping instead?

BOSTIC: There are a lot of people who are worried about that, and I'm one of them. There are people within public health who feel that we ought to be pushing people to use e-cigarettes, as long as those people were already smoking. The problem, of course, is that by making them available commercially everywhere, it has led to a youth vaping epidemic. And, of course, even if it's not as dangerous as smoked tobacco, certainly addiction itself is a harm, and we ought to be very concerned about youth.

SUMMERS: As we've been discussing, New Zealand has been particularly aggressive against smoking. But do you believe that measures like this could be politically viable in other countries?

BOSTIC: Oh, absolutely. The countries that are sort of at the forefront of this are a bunch of countries in Europe. Finland is a big one. They're trying to get to 2% by 2040. Canada has a goal to get to 5% by 2030. And, you know, the U.S. actually had a goal of 5% by 2030. But earlier this year they also realized they weren't going to make it. But instead of changing the strategy, they changed the goal, and so now the goal is 6.1% by 2030.

SUMMERS: Does that seem like a benchmark that is perhaps attainable?

BOSTIC: Perhaps. I doubt it without some new policies.

SUMMERS: So smoking rates have been going down in a number of countries in the last few decades, but in some places, like Indonesia, for example, they're still climbing. So even as countries like New Zealand enact these strict policies, when you take stock of the global picture, are you optimistic?

BOSTIC: Well, we've made some progress. Some countries are still going up. In fact, there are more smokers now than there were yesterday. But I think it would have been worse without the last 20 years of action. Governments are starting to see that it can't all be focused on the demand side. It needs to be focused on the supply side. And, of course, it's the tobacco industry that is causing this. This is an industrially caused epidemic, and so we need to focus on that. The people that are addicted to nicotine were almost all addicted as children, and we should see them as our clients, as people that need help quitting. And most of them do, of course, want to quit.

SUMMERS: Chris Bostic is policy director for Action on Smoking and Health, an NGO dedicated to global tobacco control. Chris, thanks for being here.

BOSTIC: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabe O'Connor
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.