New Zealand models generational tobacco purchase ban in US suburb

As New Zealand prepares to introduce one of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world, a similar ban has already been put in place nearly 10,000 miles away in a Boston suburb.

Earlier this month, New Zealand unveiled its plan to stop young people from smoking in their lifetimes.

The legislation, which includes other restrictions on smoking, would make it illegal to sell or provide tobacco products to people born after a certain date.

According to the proposal, from 2027, the legal smoking age in New Zealand to 18 would be raised year by year, allowing existing smokers to continue purchasing tobacco products, but effectively making them banned for all. person born after 2008.

The proposal would make New Zealand’s retail tobacco industry one of the smallest in the world.

But this is not the first place to experience an age-based smoking ban.

In Brookline, Massachusetts – an affluent suburb within walking distance of the city limits of Boston – a bylaw that went into effect in September forever prohibits anyone born after January 1, 2000 from purchasing tobacco and vape products . This means that people who turned 21 this year, the legal age in Massachusetts to buy tobacco, cannot do so in Brookline.

The idea is part of the same “tobacco-free generation” movement that New Zealand is working to make, said Katharine Silbaugh, co-sponsor of the Brookline ban, a professor of law at Boston University and elected from the Brookline municipal government. .

She said she and others who fought for the Brookline settlement have been in contact with New Zealand advocates as they craft their national plan.

“There are definite advantages to doing what they are doing because a person who is really determined to buy tobacco can walk through city limits here,” she said. “But there is strong evidence that accessibility to substances increases use, so it is not the case that what Brookline did will have no effect. It will have an effect.

A new rule in Brookline, Massachusetts, prohibits anyone born after January 1, 2000 from purchasing tobacco and vaping products. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Although united in their goal of phasing out smoking, Brookline and New Zealand face different challenges.

Brookline’s settlement applies only to the predominantly white city of about 60,000 residents, which has a median household income of about $ 117,000. Local lawmakers approved it in November 2020 by 139 votes to 78.

For starters, tobacco use is not much of a problem in Brookline: 6.8% of adults smoke, half the statewide smoking rate, according to the Massachusetts Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program, which is administered by the state Department of Public Health.

New Zealand’s plan has been proposed for the entire country of over 5 million people, where 11.6 percent of all people 15 years of age and over smoke. The proportion climbs to almost 29 percent among Aboriginal Maori adults. The government’s goal is to reduce the total number to less than 5% by 2025.

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Although applauded by health advocates, the plan has been rebuffed by politicians and advocacy groups in New Zealand who see it as excessive state interference that will hammer businesses away.

Sunny Kaushal, who heads an organization that represents small business owners, predicted a “devastating impact” on convenience stores.

Citing figures from Z Energy, a gas station retailer, he said tobacco made up almost half of in-store sales.

Kaushal said his organization supported the initiative, but felt the affected businesses should be compensated.

A sign reads that the University of Aukland campus is smoke-free in Auckland, New Zealand on December 9, 2021.David Rowland / AP

In Brookline, financial concerns are also very important among small businesses, but more because of concerns that customers will simply travel to the next town to buy tobacco products.

“On the front line” of customer frustrations

Elias Audy and his son own two Mobil gas stations in Brookline. They said they anticipate a significant loss of revenue that goes beyond tobacco sales, as customers who go elsewhere to buy cigarettes are likely to buy their gasoline and other items there as well.

“This is really where the impact is going to be felt. It will be felt in two or three months, when people start to move to other places outside of Brookline to get their cigarettes, gasoline, water bottle, crisps, ”he said. .

In a way, a nationwide ban would seem fairer than the Brookline regulation, Audy added.

“It’s not statewide. It is not nationally. It’s just Brookline. I think the city of Brookline chooses what kind of industry we are in, ”he said.

His son, Omar Audy, said he feared customers would express their anger at the ban on store workers.

“Why can’t they buy a pack of cigarettes at 21 when they can go to a bar, they can go to a nightclub? It doesn’t sound right at all, ”he said. “It looks like the city has taken away their civil rights and put us on the front lines to deal with their frustration. “

The ban prompted several Brookline small business owners, including Elias Audy, to unite to sue the town in an attempt to overturn the policy, arguing that it is against state law and discriminates against clients based on their date of birth.

“You are literally discriminating against someone on the day they were born,” said Adam Ponte, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “You almost wear this badge for the rest of your life.”

The proposed ban has been criticized in New Zealand as a “nanny state” measure.David Rowland / AP

Silbaugh, the Brookline settlement co-sponsor, is optimistic the ban will have less of an effect on businesses than the Audys and others fear.

“Every existing customer that they currently have remains an existing customer,” she said. “All they lose is the ability to develop new business with people 21 and under. ”

She’s hoping the ban will eventually spread beyond Brookline so Audys don’t have to watch customers go elsewhere to get their nicotine fix.

New Zealand’s proposals, which also include reducing the nicotine content in tobacco products and reducing the number of retailers allowed to sell them, are expected to be debated in parliament in the coming weeks. The ruling Labor majority means legislation, which does not affect the sale of vaping products, is likely to pass.

The move received support from a range of experts in New Zealand, including those of leading Maori public health care provider Hapai Te Hauora, who described the announcements as “long overdue.”

But the libertarian ACT party has described the initiative as a “nanny state” initiative reminiscent of the United States’ experience with prohibition in the early 20th century.

“Ultimately, we will end up with a black market for tobacco,” said Karen Chhour, spokesperson for the party.

She argued that reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes could backfire, causing smokers to buy more to achieve the same effect.

Lucy Elwood, CEO of the Cancer Society of New Zealand, said the proposed measures were “evidence-based” and that nicotine reduction works because people smoke more for the first few days and then cut back.

The plan is “something of an experiment,” said Professor Chris Bullen, director of the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland. But he said that, given the likely public health benefits, “the tobacco control, research and advocacy community fully supports the government in taking some pretty innovative approaches here.”

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International said in a statement it was considering New Zealand’s proposal.

At Brookline, Silbaugh said she felt age-based smoking restrictions were a “win-win.”

“As we have conceived it, no one who can currently buy tobacco will ever be prohibited from buying tobacco,” she said. “It really only affects the future.”

Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York and Emanuel Stoakes reported from Christchurch, New Zealand.

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