Is New Zealand on the verge of welcoming a new round of drug prohibition?

Just as we see encouraging signs that prohibitionists are starting to understand that drug prohibition is the primary cause of harm from nonmedical drug use–with new initiatives at home and abroad to decriminalize illicit drug use–policymakers in New Zealand are about to add a widely used drug to the prohibited list: tobacco.

According to Reuters, New Zealand's government plans to draft legislation next year that will prohibit the sale of tobacco products to anybody under the age of 14 starting in 2027 and lasting permanently. Simultaneously, the number of licensed tobacco merchants will be reduced, and nicotine concentrations in all tobacco products offered to current legal clients would be gradually reduced. Beginning in 2027, the objective is to develop a totally "smoke-free" generation. As a result, New Zealand will become one of the most tobacco-restrictive countries in the world. Only Bhutan, which outlawed cigarettes completely in 2010, is stricter.

When will they figure it out? Prohibition merely helps to expand the underground market for illicit goods. Bhutan's prohibition created a new market for illicit tobacco goods, mostly from India. According to the Bhutan government's news service Kuensel, Bhutan's rate of per capita tobacco smokers was the highest in South East Asia in 2017, at 24.6 percent:

Despite complete ban on tobacco sales, tobacco use remains high among 13- to 17‐​year‐​old which constitutes 9.4 percent of the total population

Bhutan also has the highest number of adolescents using other tobacco products at 29.3 percent followed by Timor‐​Leste (27.1 percent) and Thailand (14 percent).

The data used in the report are from the latest round of the global school‐​based student health surveys implemented by the member states of the WHO SEA region.

According to the report, while almost all countries in the region with a few exceptions legally restrict supply including sale of tobacco and alcohol to people under a certain age ranging from 18 to 21 years and completely ban the supply and sale of drugs, the results show their use remains high among 13–17-year-olds.

Bhutanese officials appear to have learned from this tragic error. Bhutan's National Assembly removed the restriction on the sale, importation, and distribution of tobacco products to those above the age of 18 this summer, recognizing that increasing tobacco smuggling is a major source of COVID-19 transmission in the country's southern provinces. Tobacco cultivation and manufacture are still forbidden within the country's boundaries. Bhutanese politicians are also discussing repealing the country's 100 percent tobacco sales tax. The suggestion to eliminate the sales tax was "made so that tobacco is supplied at the lowest possible costs and merchants and consumers do not turn to smuggled products," according to the national news agency.

One would think that New Zealand's smart leaders would be well aware of the detrimental unforeseen effects — and futility — of prohibition. Why would anybody believe that prohibition will work for cigarettes if it hasn't succeeded for medicines that are far less popular?

A plan to prohibit menthol cigarettes in the United States, I argued earlier this year, is likely to exacerbate racial imbalances in the criminal justice system. Young individuals, as well as Black and Brown populations, are particularly fond of menthol cigarettes. With law enforcement already focused on the "low hanging fruit" of persons like Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes on the street, adding menthol cigarettes to the mix would simply exacerbate the problem.

New Zealand is not exempt from such a scenario. Currently, about 12% of New Zealanders smoke, whereas indigenous Maori people smoke at a rate of 29%. Expect black market tobacco dealers to pursue this minority demographic as a marketing target.

Maori are disproportionately represented in criminal justice statistics "to an alarming degree," according to the New Zealand Department of Corrections. Maori are imprisoned at double the rate of New Zealanders of European heritage, according to the New Zealand Herald in 2016. A gradual prohibition on tobacco products, as proposed by New Zealand officials, will only exacerbate the problem.

If New Zealand wants to reduce tobacco smoking's detrimental impacts, it should relax its vaping restrictions, which recently made most flavored ecigarettes illegal. Nicotine-containing ecigarettes have been shown to aid tobacco smokers in quitting. There's little indication that they're a gateway to tobacco use among teenagers.

New Zealand politicians still have time to alter their views on this.

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