On The Newshub/Smokefree Twin Fiascos

Published: Thu 29 Feb 2024 10:57 AM
Here’s a tale of two sunset industries. One has a track record of quality investigative reporting, and sound reportage of the 24/7 news cycle. The other sunset industry peddles a deadly substance that kills and injures tens of thousands of New Zealanders every year, while imposing significant annual costs on the public health system.
Which industry is this government rushing to assist? PM Christopher Luxon says that Newhub can expect no government assistance to help prevent the closure of its entire news operation, because Newshub has to adapt to changing market conditions. Yet the tobacco industry? Different story. The Luxon administration is planning to cushion the decline of Big Tobacco by rushing its protection through Parliament under urgency.
To repeat: Newshub’s news operation is being left to sink or swim because that’s just market reality. Google and Facebook have eaten the available advertising revenue, without being required by government to contribute to the New Zealand news environment and the production community on which they feed so profitably, and without having to pay for their use of digital local news content. Last year, National opposed concrete moves to make them do so. Reportedly, Google made a $20.5 million after-tax profit in 2022, a figure calculated after it had paid a non-taxed $870 million “service fee” back to its home base, up from $698 million in 2021. Its full NZ tax bill for 2022 was $6.4 million.Down Tobacco’s Road
Conversely, and despite the deadly physical and economic harms that befall consumers hooked on its products… Big Tobacco is the industry that Luxon is rushing to assist, under an urgency that conveniently bypasses the normal process of democratic scrutiny. Basically, the government is scrapping Labour’s plans to (a) slash the number of outlets selling this killer drug (b) raise the age barrier on who can buy it and (c) weaken the drug’s potency, thereby reducing the incidence rates and the severity of addiction.
Across the board this week, the lack of accountability by the Luxon government has been breath-taking. Luxon himself is refusing to confirm or deny that his government plans to weaken the restrictions on the sort of military-style automatic weapons used in the mosque massacres. Broadcasting Minister Melissa Leo has avoided media interviews on the imminent Newshub news shutdown.
As former Health Minister Ayesha Verrall pointed out in the House last night, it is mystifying that while cigarettes and tobacco are the deadliest substance that are legally available, the content of cigarettes is unregulated, despite it containing addictive ingredients (e.g. nicotine) arsenic and a range of deadly tars that contribute to serious respiratory illnesses. More regulations exist, Verrall noted, on the content of sandwiches, or on the sale of mussels (which can contain unhealthy viruses) than on nicotine products.
In passing, the current use of urgency has highlighted the farcical lack of meaningful checks and balances in our political system. A government enjoying a parliamentary majority can simply steamroll any dissent, and bypass the select committee process that enables legislation to be subjected to public inputs and media scrutiny. Under urgency, the relevant Minister is also not required to provide substantive answers to questions raised (or amendments proposed) by the Opposition.
Costello spent her time last night in the House stonewalling questions, declining comment (for instance) on the issue of why cigarette content is exempted from regulation. Green MP Chloe Swarbrick read quotes by Christopher Luxon (from mid 2023 ) praising the Australians for cracking down on vaping. At the time, Luxon floated the possibility of a total vaping ban - and so far, he has not taken such a ban off the table. Why, Swarbrick then asked in vain, was Costello now touting vaping as an essential element in the government’s plan to further reduce smoking –whatever that plan is, and whenever it might emerge into daylight.
Smoking has far worse health and life expectancy impacts on Maori, given that 17.1% of the Maori population continue to be daily smokers compared to only 6.8 % of the entire population 15+. Therefore, Labour MP Ingrid Leary asked in vain, with which iwi was Costello consulting and when, about further anti-smoking measures? Doggedly, Costello kept her head down (literally) and refused to engage. Ultimately, the government’s “rationale” for scrapping the anti-smoking legislation seemed to be... Because it can.
Should we be surprised that National, ACT and New Zealand First are on side with the tobacco industry, to the point where they have been using the industry’s own p.r. spin to justify gutting the smokefree legislation? The fear, for instance, that the planned sharp reduction in retail outlets would fuel the black market trade in cigarettes (run by gangs!) is bogus.
University of Auckland professor Chris Bullen said that since the Smokefree Aotearoa goal came in in 2011, there had been no increase in the proportion of illicit tobacco products, and the absolute size of the illicit market had declined. "We haven't seen that in New Zealand over more than a decade of increasing the price of tobacco. In fact, all of the evidence points to a decline. That may be in part due to a reduction in demand for cigarettes, because much fewer people are smoking, and they're smoking fewer cigarettes."
New Zealand already has very high prices for cigarettes/tobacco, but the black market for these products has remained relatively small, at around 8% to 12% at most, of the entire market.
Moreover, the same evidence indicates that the smokefree legislation would have delivered major health gains – notably, three fold per capita gain at least in health benefits among Maori. The now scrapped reduction in retail outlets would also have sharply reduced smoking rates, thereby triggering a decline in the demand for black market cigarettes as well. So much for the Luxon administration’s pre-election boast that it would be making only evidence – based decisions. Instead, it is championing the cause of ‘corner dairy’ owners who sell cigarettes and tobacco – and whose political campaign against the smokefree legislation is known to be funded by the tobacco industry.
Should we be surprised? Not really. Monkeys will dance to who-ever is paying the organ grinder.
Footnote: As for Newshub and its news hasn’t looked for a direct cash handout from the government, although an argument could be made along those lines. Reportedly, Newshub’s demise was due to (a) the recessionary hard times post-Covid, which have been intensified by the Reserve Bank’s interest rate policy and (b) the related decline in TV advertising.
As mentioned, a significant chunk of that advertising revenue has gone to foreign multinationals who do not make any contribution to the news eco-system that they continue to exploit for significant profit. The government could tax their presence here more aggressively, and divert at least some of that money into a competitive fund accessible to local media.
If that attempt was made... Here as in Canada, Google and Meta would no doubt fight back by dropping their links to local media, to try and force New Zealand into submission. Canada is fighting back – just as Australia did when it imposed similar costs on the same companies that baulked at first, before reaching a compromise deal. As things stand, the path of total capitulation to foreign multinationals is undermining the viability of independent news media in this country. Newshub’s news operation is unlikely to be the last New Zealand news organisation domino to fall.
Is the government likely to care about the demise of its potential media critics? Hardly. In the end, why would it want to foster a healthy, informed democracy that would – at times - critically evaluate its own actions? Far simpler to simply do the bidding of its friends in Big Tobacco.Whistling, at work and play
The young American whistler Molly Lewis has just released an album called On The Lipsthat’s eerily reminiscent of the soundtracks to David Lynch’s classic work. With that in mind, here’s her track called “Crushed Velvet”:

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