Should tobacco be sold only in pharmacies?

New Zealand is again floating the idea of restricting tobacco sales to pharmacies and specialist retailers

The New Zealand Government has issued a document seeking comment on proposed actions to achieve its Smokefree 2025 goal, which will inform the development of its Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan.

“Restricting sales to a limited number of store types would make it substantially more difficult to buy cigarettes,” the document states.

“The result would be to reduce uptake by young people and support smokers who are trying to quit.

“Some commentators have suggested that tobacco products should be sold only in specialist R18 stores.

“Pharmacies have also been suggested as an option that could provide a strong link with smoking cessation advice.”

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall told Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint that without implementing change, the country will not meet its smoke-free by 2025 target.

She said that currently around 11.6% of New Zealanders smoke, but the goal had been 5% by 2025.

“So we clearly have to do more,” she said.  

Around 8000 outlets across the country currently sell tobacco, RNZ reported, but the exact number is unknown because retailers do not need a licence to sell it.

However, it is known that there are more of these outlets in Māori communities.

“It strikes me as amazing that for a retailer to sell a sandwich they need to be licensed, but they don’t need to be licensed to sell tobacco,” Ms Verrall said, saying that easy access to tobacco made it harder to quit such an addictive substance.

“Pharmacies are staffed by health professionals,” she said.

“So it puts the sale of tobacco in a harm minimisation frame and puts it more in line with say the methadone program where people with an addiction, come to a health professional to get tobacco. 

“This is something we want to hear from retailers, pharmacists and other professionals on.”

New Zealand is also considering increasing the age at which people can buy cigarettes by one year, each year, with the aim of creating an entire generation which has not been able to buy tobacco.

The concept of reducing the availability of cigarettes, including making them available in pharmacy and other limited outlets, has been gaining some momentum in New Zealand.

A recent University of Otago study found that pharmacies would be second to petrol stations in reducing the number of tobacco outlets per smoker: there would be only one tobacco outlet per 582 smokers if cigarettes were only sold in pharmacies.

Lead author Dr Louise Marsh from the Social and Behavioural Research Unit in the University’s Department of Preventive and Social Medicine said that positives could include reduced operating hours, reduced opportunities for minors to access cigarettes, and that pharmacists are already able to provide smoking cessation interventions.

Restricting cigarette sales to pharmacies has also been suggested in Australia.

In late 2020, a new tobacco “endgame” centre, the Centre for Research Excellence on Achieving the Tobacco Endgame (CREATE) was created. Its director, Associate Professor Coral Gartner, said that this was one option to reduce smoking, as was putting cigarettes on prescription.

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