Last week, New Zealand announced a bold plan to end tobacco sales and smoking. The plan, which could be passed as early as next year, would not immediately result in a ban. Current smokers could expect to live out the remainders of their lives as smokers – though experts agree this is likely to shorten their lives. They will also be smoking mandated low-nicotine cigarettes.
If passed, children who turn fifteen by 2023 will be legally able to smoke. Children who have not, will never be allowed.
The measure is not out of character for the island nation. In 2011, New Zealand announced plans to curb smoking, setting a goal of bringing smoking down to five percent of the population by 2025. They have already come a long way, nearly slashing their smoking rate in half since 2008. They have taken down tobacco signs, sponsored anti-smoking advertising, and drastically increased the price of cigarettes. Campaigns targeted at students have been especially successful.
Though not the first country to attempt a tobacco ban – Bhutan enacted legislation banning tobacco sales in 2010 that was only recently overturned – New Zealand marks the first developed nation to take such a hard line against smoking. The move has led some to wonder whether other countries will follow suit.
Smoking ban proposals are often derailed by civil liberty groups arguing, in lesser or more words, that smoking is healthier than fascism. You can even buy the shirt.
The argument is simple and generally effective: people should be free to make their own decisions. Even if those decisions will kill them. The health-related consequences of smoking are well-documented and downright scary. From cancer to heart disease and even stroke, no organ system is safe from the harm caused by tobacco. 480,000 deaths are thought to be associated with smoking in the United States each year.
Civil liberty advocates nonetheless continue to fight against bans, but public opinion may be swaying the other direction, even in notably liberty-loving countries like the United States. There are currently smoking bans covering bars, restaurants, and workplaces in twenty-nine states. An additional two states allow smoking at work, but draw the line at bars and restaurants. Key to smoking ban legislation is often the protection of workers in these industries, who previously faced second-hand smoke exposure at work, independent of their own smoking status.
A second argument against smoking bans is not whether they should exist, but whether they can achieve their goals. Prohibition didn’t stop alcohol consumption, but it did bolster organized crime. According to the New York Times, the New Zealand Government has already admitted that at least 10% of current tobacco sales take place on the black market and that organized crime around tobacco smuggling is on the rise. It was fears that smugglers might bring Coronavirus into the country that led Bhutan to rethink their ban.
In a plot twist, young Americans are choosing to leave smoking behind. Americans aged 18—24 have historically been a key smoking demographic. This age group hovered around a 20% smoking rate in the year 2000. By 2019 it had dropped to 8%. This trend is one aspect of an increasingly health-conscious culture, nationwide and across age groups, though no one can say whether this cultural shift will be long-lasting.
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Perhaps anti-smoking and civil rights activists can agree that a cultural shift is a better solution to a ban. The healthiest thing may be a civilization that chooses not to smoke. We will wait to see whether a ban precedes an anti-smoking cultural shift in New Zealand, or instead feeds an underground tobacco market. That answer, more than anything else, will determine whether the rest of the world follows suit.