NZ Minister Denies Asking Ministry About Lowering Tobacco Taxes

Concerns the tobacco industry is influencing policy.

New Zealand’s Associate Health Minister, New Zealand First MP Casey Costello, was questioned in Parliament today over authorship of a policy paper she sent to the Ministry of Health shortly after taking office.

The paper proposed a three-year freeze on tobacco excise, as well as the complete removal of excise tax from smokeless tobacco products, where the tobacco is heated to a vapour rather than burned.

She claimed she has no idea who wrote the document and last week told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) that she “had no discussions on that at all … it’s not even something I specifically sought advice on. I haven’t looked at a freeze on the excise at all.”

Another document, sent from the Ministry to the Associate Minister, asked her whether she “would like advice in January 2024 to include implications of a three-year freeze on CPI-related excise increases for smoked tobacco.” The “yes” option is circled, and it was signed by Ms. Costello on Dec. 20, 2023, according to RNZ.

The Epoch Times has not seen the document.

Questions In Parliament

Questioned in the House today, Ms. Costello described the document as “historical policy positions” of New Zealand First and that she had no idea who originally authored it.

She said she had provided “a range of information to officials, including things like Hansard and previous policy proposals around smoke-free and vaping … I want to be clear they were not my proposals or notes. They were not things I had written.”

Labour health spokesperson Aeysha Verrel asked the Associate Minister why she had publicly denied looking at the issue of excise when the paper provided to officials mentioned it, to which Ms. Costello replied that her actions had been “distorted by a media article” and that she “had not sought specific advice” on the issue.

Opposition parties also targeted Prime Minister Christopher Luxon on the issue, with Labour Deputy Leader Carmel Sepuloni asking whether he had confidence in the associate minister.

Mr. Luxon was not present—nor was Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters—so the leader of the third coalition party, ACT, answered on his behalf.

“It’s fantastic to have a minister who asked for a range of advice. I can’t imagine the psychology of someone who doesn’t want a minister who is committed to reducing smoking and be interested in listening to advice,” ACT leader David Seymour said.

Limits of Prime Ministerial responsibility debated

Opposition members then attempted to get Mr. Seymour to reveal whether or not the tobacco industry had any input into the paper Ms. Costello had sent to the Ministry.

That led to several points-of-order as to whether a prime minister had any responsibility for a paper provided to a minister by a third party, with the government claiming they did not and the opposition saying that it became an official responsibility if it was handed to the public service.

Labour Finance spokesperson pointed out to Speaker Gerry Brownlee that “when this exact issue was raised, you took the position that once the associate minister handed that material on to officials, it became the responsibility of both the minister and indeed the prime minister. It was the ruling you gave yesterday.”

Greens co-leader James Shaw said that lobbying became “a problem if that is not transparent, where you [don’t] know who those organisations are and what is being provided to officials in an official capacity and the ministerial capacity,” adding that the key question was about knowing whether the tobacco industry had been involved in an official document.

Has the Prime Minister’s Confidence

Mr. Seymour conceded he did not know whether Mr. Luxon had spoken to Ms. Costello about the issue. Usually, since ministers’ offices are given some advance warning of opposition questions, they provide anyone delegated to answer with the information they need.

Ms. Sepuloni then asked a supplementary question as to whether the prime minister was confident that all of his ministers had declared all conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, to which Mr. Seymour responded “yes.”

Mr. Brownlee said he would reflect on the issue and have a ruling by the time the House sits again in two weeks.

The document in question that was sent to the ministry suggests harm from nicotine is comparable to the harm from coffee.

“Nicotine is as harmful as caffeine but its association with smoking has seen the poorest punished by huge taxes as they make up 64 percent of daily smokers. This is why getting smokers onto vaping matters because it’s the number one reason why smoking has collapsed,” it said.

It also paints a bleak picture of the industry in New Zealand, saying it was “on its knees” due to the decline in smoking from the popularity of vaping.

The new government has already committed to repealing the Labour government’s attempt to create a smoke-free generation by banning the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009, but increased the excise tax on cigarettes in December 2023.

 

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