Antismoking campaign has the opposite effect

A bold attempt by New Zealand's government to get smokers to quit may have backfired.

Despite what may be the world's most aggressive laws against tobacco and an expensive antismoking campaign, cigarette consumption rose 2.1 percent last year. And the proportion of those who smoke remains steady at 26 percent.

"Whenever a government tells people that something is not good for them, or tries to choke back social impulses or attitudes, " says magazine editor Bill Ralston, "they often rebel."

Under a 1990 law, ads can't use words or images that encourage the use, notify the availability, or promote the sale of tobacco. And lately, officials have interpreted the law to ban anything in the media that promotes "smoking behavior."

Following the 1990 Smokefree Environments Act, tobacco-company spending on promotion dropped. In 1995, sponsorship of sporting events ended. Sponsorship for events commercially associated with cigarettes, such as fashion-award ceremonies and rock concerts, were taken over by a government agency.The Health Ministry ad campaign against smoking targeted young people and the country's indigenous Maoris, the two groups identified as being at high risk for starting the habit.

So far, so typical, at least in terms of rich nations battling tobacco. But then came the new statistics. And a much tougher line.

Restraints on the press

As legislators look for new ways to curtail tobacco use, they are colliding with the guardians of the free press. Editors here have been wrestling with new limits since the government widened its drive to include those who publish what officials call "pro-tobacco words."

The first publication to find itself in the government's cross hairs was The New Zealand Listener. It ran an article last year about two tobacco growers who, following the demise of their local industry, continued to grow and market the product.

The magazine's editor, Paul Little, was then surprised with a letter from the Health Ministry inviting his "comments on this matter before the ministry makes a decision on whether prosecution proceedings might be warranted." Mr. Little believed the article had offered no value judgments. The Ministry eventually dropped the matter.

Such was not the case for Mr. Ralston, editor of Metro, a lifestyle and current-affairs monthly. In April he was forced to drop a long-running cigar column or face prosecution. Ralston insists that the column was no different from any other consumer review. In an editorial, Ralston pointed interested readers in the direction of a US magazine.

But major distributors were warned that they faced possible court action if they continued to import the title, Cigar Aficionado. The one bookseller that continues to stock it now seals copies in plastic, displaying them in the adults-only stand.

Curbs to save lives

Editorial writers continue to bemoan a government that is in their view consigning their right of free speech to the ashtray of history.

But many parliamentarians remain unconcerned.

Helen Clark, the leader of the opposition Labor Party and original architect of the smokefree legislation, claims "terrific public support" for constraining free speech in this case. "What is unique about tobacco is that, if used as intended, it kills an extraordinary proportion of its users, and so will always come up as a subject for particular legislation," Ms. Clark says. "The same cannot be said for alcohol or guns or cars."

Or newspapers and magazines, the country's editors would no doubt argue.

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