The call by ‘Big Tobacco’ firm Philip Morris for a tax break for its alternative tobacco product was an unhelp PR stunt, says the tobacco control manager for Hapai Te Hauora.

The NZ manager of United States-based Philip Morris International, James Williams, told Radio NZ that it wanted New Zealand to be its first cigarette-free market and would exit the cigarette market faster if it received a tax break from the Government for its alternative smokefree tobacco products.

In January 2017 the company, the third biggest player in the New Zealand tobacco market, announced its international ‘smokefree vision’ after investing billions in developing its iQOS device  – that releases nicotine by heating tobacco sticks rather than burning cigarettes – as a less harmful alternative for smokers. Last year a Ministry of Health court challenge that the tobacco sticks were illegal under the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990 was unsuccessful  helping prompt a planned updating of the Act this year to better regulate tobacco-free e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products.

Mihi Blair, the tobacco control manager for Māori public health agency Te Hapai Hauora, said the PR stunt being pulled by Philip Morris was “not very helpful” for New Zealand’s attempts to meet the country’s 2025 smokefree goal.

She said what concerned them was that Philip Morris was talking about only removing its cigarettes from Kiwi shelves if they got their way with a reduced tobacco excise tax for their smokefree tobacco product.

“Whereas what we would like them to say is ‘let us take tobacco off the shelves to help you reach your 2025 goal’ and then lets talk about how your iQOS harm reduction product could help meet that 2025 goal as well.”

“But they seem to be targetting New Zealand as a guinea pig to try and push their production into our community. Which is not helpful as we are trying to get tobacco out of our community – and this product is tobacco.”

Philip Morris has about a 13% share of the New Zealand cigarette market. New Zealand currently has more than 500,000 daily smokers with an estimated 5000 people dying prematurely a year because of smoking related illnesses.

Associate Minister of Health Jenny Salesa said late last year that the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990 (SFEA) would be amended next year to give smokers “more confidence in the quality of vaping and smokeless tobacco products, while also protecting children and young people from the risks associated with them”.

Concerns have been expressed that New Zealand is not on track to meet the ambitious Smokefree 2025 goal of reducing the number of adult smokers in New Zealand from the current about 14 per cent of the population to 5 per cent by 2025.

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