The anti-smoking lobby yesterday exploited a loophole in Parliamentary procedure which allowed them to mount a concerted attack at a Select Committee to call for increased tax on tobacco.

The calls came during the Finance and Expenditure Committee’s consideration of last December’s Budget Policy Statement which set out new fiscal and debt targets for the Government.

The only submissions received by the Committee on the Statement were related to tobacco taxation and there were over 30 of them.

Only one, from the Taxpayers’ Union, opposed any increase.

Tobacco excise taxes l increased by 10 per cent a year from 1 January 2012 and in each of the following four years.

They were in addition to the annual inflation-indexed increases in tobacco excise, and followed a 40 per cent increase in excise since April 2010.

The last of the annual increases was last month.

That is why the anti-smoking lobby is now putting on pressure for more increases.

A Government member of the committee said it was obligated to hear submissions presented to it which is why the anti-smoking lobbyists got an hour with the committee yesterday morning.

Their message was blunt.

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Sue Taylor, from T&T consulting, which has been contracted by the Ministry of Health to run a series of smoking cessation programmes among Maori advocated increasing the tax on tobacco products to 50% and thereafter by 25% each year through to 2020.

“I’m out there on the ground and I actually see Maori whanau and I see the continued smoking,” she said.

“Our people out in the community expect price rises.

“They are just waiting to see what it is.”

Labour MP Stuart Nash asked whether there was a risk that if taxes went up and the price increased, then some Maori might elect to spend money on tobacco rather than essentials for their family.

Ms Taylor said she didn’t believe that was so.

“The price does affect them.

“They will give up.”

She cited the case of her own father who had given up because of price increases. 

“I was more important for him to be able to provide things for us as children than actually to continue to purchase tobacco.”

Zoe Martin-Hawke from the Auckland based National Urban Maori Authorities, which includes organisations like the West Auckland Waipareira Trust, said tax increases got people thinking about quitting.

“We understand you probably have some reservations about the potential consequences of putting a 50% tax increase out there,” she said.

“We’d love you to do it but if you have some reservations at doing 50, 20% if what we’d be happy with.”

Public Health Professor Nick Wilson from Otago University said that putting up tobacco taxes would be one of the best ways to reduce the gap between the health status of Maori and Non Maori in New Zealand.

“If you are concerned about reducing disparities, this is one of the best interventions,” he said.

“In terms of cost savings it is pretty cleat from international evidence and evidence from New Zealand that raising the tax into the future will actually save health dollars starting within a year because of the reduction in heart attacks and stroke.”

But Professor Wilson was less enthusiastic about an idea proposed by the long-time anti-smoking campaigner, Dr Murray Laugeson, from the University of Canterbury, who argued that legalising electronic cigarettes might help as a transition measure to get smokers off nicotine. 

“Not one death has been attributed to their use in New Zealand, as against over 4000 deaths

annually from ordinary cigarettes, and already 1% of smokers use them,” he said. 

However Professor Wilson said caution was needed. 

“In theory electronic cigarettes could be a way to help smokers to quite but they could also be a problem in terms of renormalizing smoking and uptake in youth,” he said. 

Just how much the anti-smoking campaigners have achieved with their move into the Finance and Expenditure Committee remains to be seen. 

New taxes are not normally something that committees recommend. 

Taxes are very much the property of the Finance Minister and Cabinet and the Cabinet but the strength of the arguments put to the Committee yesterday may have some impact on the upper floors of the Beehive.