New Zealand unveiled a plan on Thursday to eventually ban all sales of cigarettes in the country, a decades-long effort unique in the world to prevent young people from taking up smoking.
The proposed legislation, which is expected to become law next year, would leave current smokers free to continue buying cigarettes. But it would gradually raise the smoking age, year by year, until it covers the entire population.
Starting in 2023, anyone under age 15 would be barred for life from buying cigarettes. So, for instance, in 2050 people 42 and older would still be able to buy tobacco products — but anyone younger would not.
“We want to make sure young people never start smoking, so we will make it an offense to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of youth,” Dr. Ayesha Verrall, the country’s associate health minister, said in Parliament on Thursday. “People aged 14 when the law comes into effect will never be able to legally purchase tobacco.”
The legislation was among several proposals announced on Thursday that aim to reduce smoking levels in New Zealand across all ethnic groups, including its poorer Indigenous Maori and Pacific Island citizens, below 5 percent by 2025. Currently the rate is just under 10 percent.
New Zealand first announced this target in 2011. Since then, it has steadily raised the price of cigarettes to among the highest in the world. A pack in New Zealand costs about 30 New Zealand dollars, or a little over $20, second only to neighboring Australia, where wages are considerably higher.
Dr. Verrall said the government was not considering raising prices beyond that point. “We’ve already seen the full impact of excise tax increases,” she said. “Going further will not help people quit. It will only further punish smokers who are struggling to kick the habit.”
Banning tobacco sales, despite the clear benefits to public health, has been a virtual nonstarter around the world, with arguments often centering on civil liberties and fears of increased smuggling. In 2010, the Himalayan nation of Bhutan prohibited the sale of tobacco products, only to suspend the restrictions last year amid worries that cigarette traffickers would bring in the coronavirus.
As New Zealand unveiled its proposal, the government acknowledged the possible effects on the black market, which currently makes up at least 10 percent of tobacco sales in the country.
It said that smuggling of tobacco products into New Zealand, particularly by organized crime groups, had been rising. “The changes proposed in this document may contribute to this problem,” the government’s proposal notes.
But Dr. Robert Beaglehole, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Auckland, said there were potential solutions. “We can deal with it, if we only scanned every container coming into the country, which we don’t,” he said. “The technology is there.”
Since the New Zealand government began targeting smoking, rates have fallen far below the global average: 9.4 percent of New Zealanders currently smoke, down from 18 percent in 2008. Around 14 percent of people in the United States smoke, and roughly 20 percent worldwide.
The rates are not consistent among the New Zealand population. While the government is likely to meet its target for white New Zealanders by 2025, it would need to adjust its plans to sufficiently lower smoking rates among Maori and Pacific Island communities, Dr. Verrall said.
In addition to the gradual ban on cigarette sales, the proposed legislation would increase funding for addiction services, limit where cigarettes can be sold and reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. Vaping products, which the government has embraced as a safer alternative, would not be affected by the law.
The proposal did not say how the ban on sales would be enforced.
The New Zealand government has an absolute majority in Parliament, so it does not need the support of any coalition partners to make the proposals into law.
Janet Hoek, a public health expert at the University of Auckland, said the ban for future generations would help maintain the country’s gains.
“Once we get to the Smokefree 2025 goal and we’ve reduced smoking prevalence, we want to make sure that’s what the future looks like as well,” she said. The phased ban on cigarette sales is “one way of ensuring that this goal, once we reach it, is sustained,” she added.
Dr. Hoek said she hoped New Zealand’s plans would inspire other countries to pass similarly ambitious legislation, especially in light of World Health Organization estimates that a billion people will die of smoking-related causes this century.
“Now that New Zealand has made that step, I expect many other countries are going to follow suit,” she said. “This will be something that begins in New Zealand but that really has global implications.”