This week the Ministry of Health is taking tobacco giant Philip Morris to court. The Ministry of Health has laid charges against the New Zealand subsidiary of the multinational tobacco company relating to the importation and selling of its tobacco sticks known as HEETS. HEETS contain tobacco sticks which are heated in an electronic device, rather than burned like a traditional cigarette. It appears that the issue will come down to how the Act classifies smoking, and whether it encompasses products like HEETS which is designed for inhalation through the mouth but may not necessarily ignite.
Under Section 29 of the Smoke-Free Environments Act 1990, the Ministry believes that HEETS should be prohibited as they fall into the category of tobacco products designed for ‘oral use other than for smoking’. Under current law, it is illegal to advertise, import, and sell tobacco products that you take to your mouth to use, other than smoking. The government has also announced that any new nicotine device must go through a pre-approval process where products will be thoroughly vetted.
Hāpai Te Hauora CEO, Lance Norman, believes that the Ministry of Health is within their right to prosecute Philip Morris for believing it is "above the law". Norman explains how smoking is responsible for 5,000 deaths in New Zealand each year and smoking rates for Māori are double that of the general population. "Tobacco products like this deliver a major insult to whānau ora so we support the Ministry of Health taking action on the importation and sale of this product".
Tobacco Advocacy spokesperson, Adrian Te Patu, extends on Norman’s statement; "while this product may be safer than tobacco cigarettes, there is no sign of independent research. I support this perspective offered by Hāpai, not only because I dislike the idea of a tobacco company trying to sneak in under the radar, but because this behaviour suggests that Philip Morris think they are above the law. It is arrogant and harmful for our underserved communities".
Hāpai Te Hauora supports initiatives around supply reduction, which centre on reducing the appeal, access and affordability of tobacco. This strategy endorses harm reduction alternatives like vaping devices. HEETS is distinct in that it uses tobacco which vaping devices do not. Thought leaders within the tobacco space have argued that vaping devices are capable of eliminating nearly all of the harmful compounds associated with cigarettes which HEETS may only partially do.
Norman warns that we need to be wary of tobacco companies introducing alternative products like HEETS which claim to be moving towards a ‘smoke-free future’. Norman states that "this behaviour could be seen as ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’- Philip Morris is claiming to be in support of a post-smoking future but is still actively promoting smoking around the world, and is now using methods that we consider illegal in New Zealand".
"This is a bold decision by the Ministry of Heath, sending a clear message to get their combustible tobacco out of our country".