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New Zealand's smoking ban — a precedent for others?

Benjamin Restle
December 16, 2022

New Zealand will prohibit young generations from buying cigarettes. Yet German authorities are much more reluctant to act on tobacco. How come?

A barrell full of cigarette ends
Smoking remains a leading cause of cancer in many countriesImage: Robin Utrecht/picture alliance

Cigarette smoke contains at least 69 carcinogenic substances, and since 2004 the US Surgeon General has advised that smoking is diectly linked to several different forms of cancer. The health risks posed by tobacco have been known for many years, but governments are still finding novel means of reducing them.

In a bold step to further reduce the number of smokers, New Zealand's parliament on Tuesday voted to introduce a strict new tobacco law. As of 2023, it will prohibit anyone born on or after January 1, 2009, from buying cigarettes. This means that New Zealand will have an annually rising legal age limit for buying smoked tobacco products, effectively barring young generations from cigarettes. The country set itself the target of pushing the national smoking rate below 5% by 2025.

New Zealand cabinet member Ayesha Verrall speaks about the smokefree legislation in parliament
New Zealand cabinet member Ayesha Verrall speaks about the smokefree legislation in parliamentImage: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Government figures from 2021/2022 show that 8% of New Zealand adults were daily smokers, down from 16.4% in 2011/12. Already today, only a tiny percentage of teenagers smoke cigarettes in New Zealand.

The rolling age limit will be accompanied by a drastic reduction in the number of New Zealand vendors licensed to sell cigarettes, alongside moves to reduce their addictive nicotine content.

The sales ban, however, excludes e-cigarettes.

New Zealand's new law has been lauded by Doctor Katrin Schaller of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). She told DW the rolling age ban for buying cigarettes is in line with the country's years-long strategy of discouraging smoking and that "New Zealand is an absolute leader with regard to tobacco harm prevention."

How does Germany compare?

Germany, in contrast, has been much more reluctant to restrict the buying and smoking of cigarettes. It was only in 2007 that lawmakers raised the legal age to purchase and consume cigarettes from 16 to 18. Even so, the rate of teenage smokers has been falling consistently over recent decades.

Data from 2020 shows that 23% of adult Germans smoke, which is still considerably higher than in New Zealand. One reason for this may have to do with the country's sluggishness in outlawing cigarette advertisements, which were only banned in print media and online in 2007, owing to EU pressure. It took German lawmakers until 2021 to decide that tobacco ads may be only shown in German movie theaters during screenings aimed exclusively at mature audiences.

And up until late 2021, cigarette billboards remained ubiquitous in German streets and at bus stops. Germany was the last EU members state to introduce a ban on such public cigarette marketing. Moreover, tobacco heater placards will only be banned in Germany from January 2023, whereas the use of E-cigarettes may still be publicly promoted until the end of 2023.

A woman walks past a cigarette ad in Berlin.
Germany only outlawed public cigarette ads in 2022.Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

Doctor Schaller thinks the German public would in principle support a strict cigarette ban akin to the New Zealand model, though criticizes that German lawmakers lack the determination to adopt a clear tobacco harm prevention strategy. She partially attributes this foot-dragging to the country's influential tobacco lobby.

An estimated 127,000 people die in German each year as the result of consuming tobacco products.

Which EU states have the highest and lowest smoking rates?

Germany's national smoking rate is just below the EU average, whereas Greece has the highest proportion out of all member states, at 42%. This comes despite a Greek ban on cigarette advertisements. Although smoking in enclosed public places, playgrounds and open-air areas frequently by children is illegal, in practice, this ban is rarely enforced.

Conversely, Swedish smoking rates are the lowest out of all EU member states. Yet these figures are somewhat misleading given that snus — a smokeless oral tobacco product — is widely used instead, especially among men. Snus is illegal in all EU states, except Sweden.

"Snus isn't harmless," says Doctor Schaller, "and likely linked to cancer." While potentially less harmful than smoking tobacco products, she says, snus is harmful in its own right and can also cause addiction.