During the Christmas break, which everyone else takes but I generally don’t, I was overcome with self-inflicted pity. How oh how, do I write an article during the slowest news week in the year. I got there in the end, with Wee Winnie’s Smoke Signal. As the Coronavirus pandemic sees New Zealand in full lockdown from Wednesday, it is difficult for a different reason. Coronavirus is essentially the only thing in the news. So there is no shortage of angles to apply, but ‘scoring political points’ using a virus that has killed thousands of people is a really shitty thing to do. The problem is, the pandemic is being managed by politicians so inevitably whatever comment I do make on it is going to be political. The New Zealand space project to land humans on Mars is not being managed by politicians, therefore any criticism for it being a complete failure cannot not be criticised as ‘playing politics.’

 

You’ve probably gathered somewhere along the way that my main paid occupation is working in the supermarket industry in which I’m probably approaching the end of a three month temporary stint as a Store Manager. I don’t think it is ending because I’m crap, rather because it has gone on for two and a half months longer than initially intended. Some people will feel sorry for me, but I see it as a positive, that the Government Coronavirus response rising to level 4 won’t have much impact upon my day to day life. Supermarkets are an essential service, so I’ll continue working as per normal… aside from working in an environment I have never witnessed in my 22 year career. 

 

Some might describe it as stressful, but with the right mental attitude, it is possible to choose not to be stressed. Accept that which you cannot change, manage the factors you can and put your game face on as you enter the store each day. I’m not trying to minimise the impact depression and anxiety can have on those with mental health difficulties in saying this; I’ve been fairly open about my lifelong battle with anxiety. However I have found that however shitty I might feel, behaving in the manner I want to feel can make a genuine impact on the rest of the day. I’ve also found that sometimes I can’t be f***ed being nice and that’s the day I have.

 

The rumours about what may come have come to my attention over the last couple of weeks and the most common is about the upcoming “lockdown.” Most people are familiar with my other occupation which costs me money (politics) and flatter me with the hope that I’ll know what’s really going on or have some inside knowledge. I don’t. 

 

It has been a little bizarre responding to those who ask me about whatever rumour they have heard, “It’s only true if the Prime Minister has said it. If she hasn’t then it is nonsense.” 

 

It is an odd feeling having confidence that your Government can be relied upon to tell the truth, giving me a weird insight into why people from across the spectrum are not just backing the Prime Minister in her effort to manage the Coronavirus pandemic but enthusiastically demanding greater restrictions on their freedom be implemented as soon as possible.

 

It’s a feeling I never want to feel again.

 

Political analysis should not become taboo or scolded in any situation, even in the context of a viral pandemic. The method by which the Government is responding is the implementation of severe restrictions on liberty for at least four weeks. That statement alone shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating my opinion on this action, simply recognising that the actions being taken by the state are unprecedented in their magnitude and the speed in which they have happened. Even those who fully endorse these actions should analyse them in detail, repeatedly and every time there is a change. A deadly virus is frightening, but so is totalitarianism – and thus far, the body count racked up by 20th century totalitarian regimes is literally millions of times more than that of the Coronavirus.

 

One must feel a bit for the position National Party Leader Simon Bridges has got himself into. National has taken a bipartisan position on many issues during the Parliament. Rushed changes to gun laws in 2019 passed 119-1. The Zero Carbon Bill, despite Bridges stating it was flawed and a National Government will make changes, passed 119-1. The fluffy and misguided Child Poverty Reduction Act, which largely measures equity, not poverty, passed 119-1 following some tiny concessions to National which nobody will remember. In this situation it probably would have been better politics to emulate Sir John Key’s olive branch on the Anti-Smacking legislation, rather than continue to criticise the Government’s approach in the house.

I didn’t say he was wrong. I said it would have been better politics.

 

Increasing all benefits by $25 a week permanantly, at a cost of $2.4 billion is stupid. Doubling the winter energy payments, which are not means tested is wasteful. Going ahead with the minimum wage increase on April 1 would be economically devastating if we weren’t locked down and wage subsidisation increased to $8.7 billion. Increasing health funding by $500 million when collectively, DHBs have a $700m deficit is odd to say the least.

 

It didn’t take long for a National Party flip-flop to flop. Finance Spokesman Paul Goldsmith’s rhetoric was quite different when he called for the Government to employ an economic bazooka and spend, spend, spend. “We’d support an economic package which is bigger and faster than what has been delivered so far. The reality is, however, that only around half of that package can possibly be spent in the next two or three months. When we need it. That is around two per cent of GDP.”

 

Finally, in the last few days National has begun saying they will not “rule out” joining a grand coalition of national unity. The last time this happened in New Zealand pre-dates Labour and National, as a result of the Great Depression from 1931-1935. Bridges isn’t ruling it out but Labour isn’t suggesting it. This reeks of desperation to claw onto some shred of responsibility to take back to voters as evidence of his ability when campaigning for the September 19 general election resumes.

 

I suspect that managing the Coronavirus crisis will bring a political windfall for Jacinda Ardern. There are still no fatalities in New Zealand and a strong, decisive leader holds a considerable amount of mana. Added to her brand of kindness and compassion, what pre-virus looked like a one-term government teetering on a knife edge in the polls is now really difficult to call. She may regret not being tougher on Winston Peters following the investigation of the NZ First Trust by the Serious Fraud Office and the window to do so has long closed. Ending the final year of this Parliamentary term with NZ First cast aside, in coalition with National would have guaranteed the death of New Zealand First.

 

Since the first 1996 MMP election, junior coalition partners have always lost support at the following election. A grand coalition model makes that sort of trend impossible to predict. Indeed, it is hard to decide just who the junior coalition partner would be. Labour, as the current leading Government party or National with 55MPs? Alternatively, such a move could have been disastrous for both mainstream parties, in the same way the establishment parties of Europe are seeing their support implode and smaller parties on the left and right grow rapidly.

 

The biggest risk of all may be simply proving what I’ve said for most of my life: there really is no difference between National and Labour at all.

Politicians appear partial to aspirational plans written with their hearts rather than their heads. Grandiose hopes, focus group approved titles, targets set far after their career concludes. Irrelevant are freedom, expense or unintended consequences that always follow behind.

 

I started smoking when I was fourteen. One of hundereds of thousands of stupid teenagers attempting to improve their social standing in the brutal social environment that is the average public high school; quite unsuccessfully it turns out. It was easy to find someone who looked 18 that could be counted upon to buy a pack and long before I was legally permitted, easy to find enough dairies that weren’t concerned with small matters such as ID. A pack of Longbeach 20’s, at $5 a pack were easily affordable for someone with a part-time job in a supermarket.

 

In 2010, the Maori Affairs Committee completed the ‘Inquiry into the tobacco industry in Aotearoa and the consequences of tobacco use for Maori.“ You’d think the answer obvious: death for one in two smokers. Equally obvious are the consequences for non-Maori, however MMP is a team sport and National had to throw the Maori party a bone. Coalition government it seems is even swifter in delivering death.

 

Smokefree 2025 is a bit duplicitous in that its target is actually reducing smoking rates by New Zealanders as a whole and Maori and Pasifika themselves to below 5%. What followed was an accelerated program of tax increases 10% above inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index beyond the original three year introduction in 2010 . That has continued until the present day. Displays of tobacco at the point of sale were banned in 2015, with retail staff required to keep the product absolutely hidden, to the point of only refilling outside of trading hours. Standardised packaging, replacing branding with an olive green packet, disturbing images and the Manufacturer name with product variant at the bottom was finally implemented in 2018. New Zealand’s Government waited for the conclusion of legal battles by tobacco companies with Australia over intellectual property rights, which the Government won, to finally implement this step.

 

I couldn’t help but have a grudging admiration for the slippery tactics of the tobacco companies in seeking to protect their turf, evidence of the inability of the state to ever truly stifle the innovation of the free market. New types of cigarettes were being invented, including filters with menthol balls which, when squeezed, change the cigarette flavour from standard to menthol. I personally couldn’t see the point, having hated menthol when I did smoke, but it was interesting to behold all the same.

 

Fast forward a decade or so and I went through my own multiple attempts to quit smoking. Cold turkey, patches and eventually Champix. The latter was the most effective tool at the time as it tricked the brain into not being able to enjoy the delivery of nicotine and I finally quit with exceptions. Because I was also a heavy drinker, the exceptions merged into habit and I was eventually smoking again like nothing had changed. Champix seems to be one of those one chance and you’ve blown it medications because it just didn’t work the second time.

 

The disease of tobacco use is horrible and the medicine of government regulation harsh. I spent months researching the impacts of Government policy at the beginning of 2018 and again this year when the New Zealand Health Survey was released in April. Tobacco excise in 2002 was 27 cents per cigarette and this had barely moved until the decision was made in 2010 to begin implementing the 10% annual increases above inflation, lifting excise to 38 cents, then 44, then 49. By 2017 excise was now nearly 74 cents per cigarette and the unintended consequences were creating havoc far beyond Tariana Turia could have anticipated when in Parliament. Incidents of aggravated robbery reported to the police were 3057 in 2015, then 3534 in 2017 (an increase of 16%) as cartons of tobacco became the new blocks of gold for criminals.

 

The continual tax increases had ceased to have the same impact on smoking numbers in the second part of this decade, with the exception of daily smoking levels amongst 14 year olds, now below 2%. Using the New Zealand Health Survey, the single most continuous source of data, from the 2011-12 period to 2017-18 period. These figures are based on Daily Smokers, excluding the additional number of New Zealanders who are defined as current smokers by the Ministry of Health.

 

  • Daily Smoking New Zealanders dropped from 16.3 to 13.1%, Europeans 14.6 to 11.7. Maori and Pasifika rates, the reason for the Smokefree 2025 program, were far more stubborn. Pasifika went from 22.6% to 20% (in numbers it has increased from 45000 to 50000). Maori rates were 37.7% now down to 31.2%
  • The success of this strategy on the bottom quintile of the Deprivation Index (the most deprived 20%) was even poorer and the relationship between cost and use levels virtually nil. The number of most deprived New Zealanders smoking is about the same at 173000. The percentage of most deprived daily smokers, each year since 2011-12 was 25.9, 28.4, 29.4, 25.4, 25.6, 24.4, 23.2%
  • The total amount of tax per year being paid by European Daily Smokers increased 70% from $1888 to $3228, Pasifika 39% from $1340 to $2202, Maori 58% from $1888 to $2987 and the most deprived 20% of New Zealanders 71% from $1743 to $2987 (a result of the variations in mean cigarettes per day by each group)

 

With aggravated robbery levels up, daily smoking rates stagnant and, in the case of our poorest New Zealanders, tax levels having little relevance to consumption, Smokefree 2025 was at risk of being added to the large pile of political dreams turned into nightmares. Anyone who is interested is welcome to email me for a copy of my research.

 

In 2014, I first came across Kiwicig, a new e-cig product that looked, tasted and delivered nicotine in a favoured vapour (it was called Gold – like B&H), vaping long before it was cool. I gave up drinking around that time too so perhaps quitting smoking might have been a bit easier but I digress. Kiwicig weren’t a particularly great product. They were a bit cheaper at about $120 a month (I smoked 3 packs of 20 weekly), but they still lacked the satisfaction of a cigarette and I’d frequently give in to the temptation of a ‘real’ cigarette. My faith in the billions of individuals and trillions of ideas (many of which are shit, of course) that is the free market, thriving through capitalism, is yet to let me down. Vaping stores were initially hindered by laws that view the delivery of nicotine by methods other than cigarettes to be a medicine and faced the threat of prosecution and closure by Ministry officers, but a rare injection of logic prevailed and they chose to look the other way. Now vape shops have spread across the country and partly through widespread advertising, partly because big clouds of vapour are satisfying in a way that pathetic puffs of disgusting tobacco smoke can never be, the free market has delivered the most effective means of quitting smoking that has ever been seen.

Marketing vaping as a quit smoking tool is still a bit of a legal grey area. I stopped smoking the darts for good about four years ago but am still addicted to nicotine so have been a happy vaper for just as long. Nicotine itself is about as bad for you as drinking coffee so that isn’t really a concern and with liquid costing $40 a month, it is a lot cheaper than drinking coffee. There won’t be another release of figures from the annual New Zealand Health Survey for another six months however an OIA obtained by TVNZ shows a 10% drop in cigarettes sold in December 2018 compared to the previous year.

 

Enter the bloody government and do-gooder leftist morons, suffocated by the misery of their own lives. to these people, joy is a finite pie chart and if they don’t have it, it’s because you took it from them.

The pattern is similar to that of BZP party pills and Spice smokables that became available early in the century, ground down by a moral panic that banned the benign originals only to play a game of cat and mouse in which ban followed replacement which followed ban; each new product dirtier than the last until we find ourselves with an epidemic of synthetics that are addictive and deadly. Vaping must not be allowed to go the same direction.

 

Tobacco companies have also got in on the vaping opportunity, which isn’t surprising but I don’t think a well justified distaste for those companies should be allowed to cloud rational thought. A lot of good could come from those companies replacing their tobacco income with vaping sales. Ricardo Menendez-March, former Green Party candidate and Auckland Action Against Poverty co-ordinator claims he had been approached twice by Phillip Morris to discuss whether their IQOS “smokeless tobacco” product could help people quit smoking. He has refused to have any dealings with the company, making it more likely nicotine-addicted clients of AAAP will continue to queue for hours for help outside MSD offices, smoking $30 packs of cigarettes.

 

It will be many years before the full health impacts of vaping will be known, though I think we’re a bit smarter than we were when health professionals began to suspect a link between cigarettes and cancer. The ingredients in the brand I use are nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavours and water. Island Vape also uses Kosher ingredients if that is something which matters to you. Whatever harm we may find in the future will only be negligible compared to cigarettes. That hasn’t prevented attempts to create moral panic, with some flawed studies in Japan alleging vaping leads to condition called popcorn lung which is as horrible as it sounds.

 

Since March 2019, over 2,000 people have been affected by electronic vaping associated lung injury (EVALI) with 39 deaths. President Trump is threatening to ban vaping and ignorance of the products is having a similar impact in New Zealand, generally from the same whiny wowser weasals who screech at the prospect of someone, somewhere might not be miserable like them. The products causing EVALI are not the products that are now being sold in New Zealand pharmacies. They are black market devices delivering THC and vitamin E in a deadly fashion. Confusing the two completely different devices for being the same would be a public health catastrophe.

 

School principals are the source of claims that vaping has become the new smoking at high schools amid accusations liquid flavours such as Orange Cooler, Pink Berry Delight and Lemon Cake are being deliberately designed to appeal to children. Apparently no adult anywhere buys lollies for their own enjoyment or no school principal anyway. Even if it were true, which is most certainly isn’t, the kids still aren’t smoking!

 

Associate Minister of Health Jenny Salesa, who six months ago rejected the idea that vaping is a gateway to smoking for kids and launched a website providing information on how vaping can be used to stop smoking,  made a shocking admission in response to questioning by Act Leader David Seymour. The Government is now considering legislation that may ban advertising of vaping products and also ban most flavours of vaping liquid, leaving only tobacco, mint and menthol available to purchase. 

 

I am a regular purchaser of flavoured vape liquid and detest all three of the flavours suggested by Salesa. Flavoured vape liquid makes up 90% of current sales and the Government, with the gormless “opposition” National party desperately seeking to help, are on the verge of destroying the most effective quit smoking tool that has ever been produced. There is a mortal risk of another law being passed 119-1 by this Parliament before the next election, not due to evidence but due to anecdotal tales and ignorance. Jenny Salesa, when asked what the ingredients in vape liquid are, said “nicotine …flavours….the various things that the manufacturers put in them.”

 

Currently the vaping industry is totally unregulated. Retailers already voluntarily prevent those under 18 buying the products and government regulation is probably unnecessary but probably inevitable. Like the ban on single use plastic bags with handles, the free market has done all the hard work and the Government is desperate for an easy good news announcement.

It is vital that any new regulatory regime be as soft as possible and must not treat vaping like tobacco. Advertising vaping products should be permitted to continue as these are the most effective source of information about the products for smokers. I didn’t even know about the government’s six month old information website until doing the research for this article. It is important that regulation prevents young people from finding a new source of nicotine addiction but speculation and ignorance must not be allowed to replace proper evidence or we risk destroying the best opportunity we have for helping 500,000 New Zealanders to quit smoking.

That would be a public health disaster.