WELLINGTON // There are smoke-free bars, smoke-free parks, even smoke-free university campuses. But a smoke-free country?
New Zealand's government squeezed smokers more than ever by announcing a 40 per cent hike in tobacco taxes over the next four years. Prices here are already among the highest in the world, and by 2016 they will top 20 New Zealand dollars (Dh55) a pack on average.
Officials hope higher taxes and new restrictions will bring the nation of 4.4 million closer to a recent pledge to stub out the habit entirely by 2025. 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.
Health officials here are so serious they recently considered hiking the cost of a pack of cigarettes to 100 dollars. Although that idea was dismissed, another measure, which will force retailers to hide cigarettes below the counter rather than putting them on display, will come into effect in July.
Smoking rates among New Zealand adults have fallen from about 30 per cent in 1986 to about 20 per cent today. Cigarette sales have fallen more sharply, suggesting that even people who have not quit cut back as prices rose.
The New Zealand branch of cigarette company British American Tobacco says 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," said Susan Jones, a spokeswoman.
So far, New Zealand officials have seen few cases of illegal tobacco sales.
According to a 2011 study by the World Health Organisation, about 20 per cent of adult New Zealanders smoke. That compares to about 20 per cent of adults in the UAE, 16 per cent in the US, 17 per cent in Australia, 23 per cent in China and 27 per cent in France.