WELLINGTON - There are smoke-free bars, smoke-free parks, even smoke-free college campuses. But a smoke-free country?
New Zealand's government yesterday squeezed smokers more than ever by announcing a 40 per cent hike in tobacco taxes over the next four years.
Prices in the country - currently up to NZ$17 (S$16.30) a pack - are already among the highest in the world. And by 2016 they will top NZ$20 a pack, on average.
Other countries have lauded the idea of trying to wean their populace off tobacco but few, if any, have been willing to put a date on it.Officials hope higher taxes and new restrictions will bring the nation of 4.4 million closer to a recent pledge to snuff out the habit entirely by 2025.
Health officials here are so serious that they recently considered increasing the cost of a pack of cigarettes to NZ$100.
Although that idea was dismissed, another measure, which will force retailers to hide cigarettes below the counter rather than putting them on display, will go into effect in July.
Smoking rates among New Zealand adults have fallen from about 30 per cent in 1986 to about 20 per cent. Cigarette sales have fallen more sharply, suggesting that even people who have not quit cut back as prices rose.
People who are still smoking are not happy about where prices are going. Mr Chris Hobman said the cost is 'horrendous' and could drive some low-income people to commit crimes to support their habit.
Wellington resident Hayley Mauriohooho, who has smoked for about 20 years, said that although it would be good if more people quit, higher taxes won't stop her.
'It's quite ridiculous for the government to be concentrating on that,' she said. 'They have bigger things to worry about.'
The New Zealand branch of cigarette company British American Tobacco said the tax increases will force consumers to turn to the black market.
'Consumer demand is far better served by legitimate companies than by the illegal operators that will surely grow as the government makes it increasingly difficult for people to buy their product of choice,' wrote Ms Susan Jones, head of corporate and regulatory affairs, in an e-mail.
New Zealand's Cancer Society reacted to yesterday's announcement by sending out a press release titled 'Thumbs Up!'
Singapore, which has one of the lowest smoking rates globally at 14 per cent of the adult population, has many rules to deter smokers. It was the first in Asia to make graphic health warnings mandatory on cigarette packs.