The UK can lead the world on public health — but it must learn from New Zealand’s mistakes

On my return from a recent trip to New Zealand, meeting with public health officials, cancer charities, patients and cancer experts, I find myself sitting at the airport with a sense of conflict. My flight will take me back to the UK, where world-leading age of sale legislation has just overcome its first parliamentary hurdle — a law that could help bring an end to cancers caused by smoking for good.

But here in the departures lounge at Wellington Airport, I leave behind a country which, for many years, we looked up to for their progressive tobacco control activities and global leadership of preventative public health measures.

But following the introduction of a coalition government in New Zealand – the country that for so long had led the way – is now falling behind. Its new leaders have repealed this and other potentially life-saving legislation, in what I could only describe as an astonishing disregard for the death, damage and destruction caused by tobacco.

Public polling shows strong support for tobacco control plans in New Zealand — the majority of young people, current and ex-smokers were in favour of smokefree measures. What’s more, the legislation was repealed under the status of ‘urgent legislation’. Although the repeal was announced last year, the entire parliamentary process happened within a day, and without the usual consultation. In what felt like the blink of an eye, vital laws that could end cancers caused by smoking for good were pulled like a rug from underneath the electorate.

Without doubt this must be classed as one of the most significant missed opportunities on health policy in recent history and should be a genuine motivation that spurs our political leaders onwards, giving them the extra resolve needed to ensure the UK doesn’t fall into the same unfortunate trap.

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Preventing ill health must transcend politics. Saving lives must transcend politics. And ultimately, that’s what this legislation is about. Yes, as has been pointed out by a number of MPs in the House and commentators across the press, smoking rates in the UK have been declining for years now. But public health measures like this have been the driving force behind these trends, and recent Cancer Research UK studies from UCL have shown that there are around five times more cigar, pipe and shisha users than there were a decade ago.

In New Zealand, as is the case with many countries, tobacco is a key and fundamental driver of the health inequalities observed between different communities. Indeed, without further action here in the UK, the most deprived 10% of the population in England won’t be smokefree until after 2050 — that’s 20 years later than the government’s own target. And contrary to libertarian arguments about freedom of choice, smoking is something you may choose to start, but it’s not something you can easily choose to stop once the addiction takes hold. Most who smoke have tried at least once to quit.

Here in the UK, the tobacco and vapes bill committee is hearing evidence on all sides of the debate this week. They must remember this Bill provides a genuine opportunity for the UK to lead the world in public health.

The burden of smoking is clear and unequivocal — an addictive product which will ultimately kill two thirds of users. My grandfather was killed by the habit — a desperately sad, but unfortunately common scenario for countless families in the UK.  I am determined that tobacco will not be responsible for killing my children as well.

As the boarding call is announced, I feel really disappointed for what has happened in New Zealand. But I step onto the plane with a sense of cautious hope. The UK is leading the way and we should be proud, but not complacent. I’m sure my colleagues in New Zealand felt this hope before theirs was dashed. We can’t let that happen here. I implore MPs and Lords to do what is right. Vote this legislation through in full, implement it and bring us closer to a smokefree future. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.