The tobacco industry language that found its way into ministerial papers

4 March 2024

By Kate Newton, RNZ

A few weeks before Christmas, as ministers in the just-formed National-led government were settling into the Beehive, a set of noteswas sent from the office of new Associate Health Minister and NZ First MP Casey Costello to a group of health officials.

A year prior, under the previous government, New Zealand had passed smokefree laws that were hailed as a world first.

They included slashing the number of retailers allowed to sell tobacco, mandating very low nicotine cigarettes from 2025, and making it illegal to sell tobacco to anyone born in 2009 onwards (today’s 14 and 15-year-olds).

Repeal it all, the notes from Costello’s office said.

Then, the notes outlined a new set of proposals.

They included removing excise tax from smokeless tobacco products, and adding heated tobacco products into the definition of vaping.

The intention to do these things had already been signalled in coalition agreements signed a few weeks earlier between New Zealand First, ACT and National.

But the notes from Costello’s office went even further than that.

After years of tobacco tax hikes, under both Labour and National-led governments, they asked for advice on freezing tobacco excise tax for three years.

And the document took frequent swipes at the previous government.

“The [Labour-led government] policies were ideological nonsense that no other country had been stupid enough to implement,” the notes said.

Despite coming from her office, Costello denied requesting the advice, writing the notes, or even knowing who collated them.

RNZ’s attempts to follow up exactly who did write the notes, and where suggestions such as freezing excise tax on cigarettes came from, have only raised more questions.

Costello’s office declined an OIA request for reports, briefings and communications on the issue, on the basis that it would breach officials’ ability to provide ‘free and frank’ advice to ministers.

 

The tobacco industry has long since moved on from the days when it tried to discredit or distract from a mounting body of evidence that smoking kills.

But researchers say it’s now applying the same tactics to a raft of next-generation alternatives to cigarettes.

Otago University Professor of Public Health Janet Hoek says a really important part of that strategy is to “shape the discourse” and normalise the industry’s new products among members of the public, media – and politicians.

“People have picked up on that [discourse] without realising how it’s been socialised and seeded.”

RNZ compared the notes Costello sent to officials with a range of documents produced by the tobacco industry and its supporters.

Costello has said she has no prior links with the industry and she’s committed to the 2025 smokefree target.

But whether intentional or not, there are frequent – and striking – similarities between the language and themes from the document that came out of her office and those used by the industry.

Janet Hoek says words like ‘experimental’ are used by the tobacco industry and its supporters “in any context where a country is going to be leading the way in policy innovation”.

“‘Experimental’ suggests that it’s untested, it’s unproven – and it’s only a couple of steps from that to thinking, well it’s high risk, we don’t know what the outcomes are going to be.

“And then it’s just a small step to think, well, does the government really know what it’s doing? And it raises general questions about competence. That’s been an industry strategy all along.”

‘Radical’ has a similar effect, she says.

“It suggests that it’s extreme and it’s unnecessary and it lacks proportionality.”

It’s important to note that other submitters on the smokefree amendments – including smokefree group ASH – used similar language.

“The evidence for the proposals is based mainly on experimental modelling with all the assumptions and limitations that come with this science,” ASH’s 2021 select committee submission stated.

But unlike the industry, ASH supported the Bill.

“We want to be clear that we consider this a world-leading and bold piece of legislation.”

The smoke-free generation policy was immediately framed as a ban, Hoek says, “which of course ties into this industry discourse of something being prohibitionist and it’s taking away rights and removing freedoms”.

In a 2014 document outlining its 10-year global corporate strategy (and leaked to Reuters in 2017), Philip Morris International specifically identified “age-phased prohibition” and “nicotine ceilings” as issues to address.

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