Story: Māori smoking, alcohol and drugs – tūpeka, waipiro me te tarukino

Before Europeans arrived, Māori were one of the few societies in the world that did not use intoxicants. There was no local equivalent of tobacco, alcohol or recreational drugs. After Europeans introduced tobacco to New Zealand, it was quickly taken up by Māori. In the 2000s the Māori smoking rate was still more than twice that of non-Māori. Early reactions to alcohol were less positive – Māori dubbed it waipiro (stinking water) or wai kaha (strong water), and communities attempted to control access to liquor.

Story by Megan Cook
Main image: Māori man smoking a pipe, 1847

Story summary

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Māori began using tobacco (chewing it or smoking pipes) after Europeans brought it to New Zealand in the late 1700s. Tobacco became a standard trade item, and Māori grew plants and became heavy smokers. Many Māori women smoked, although smoking by Pākehā women was seen as unacceptable in the 19th century.

Some Māori opposed the use of tobacco, and Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana banned it from his community at Maungapōhatu.

In the mid-20th century the health dangers of smoking became known. Māori had high rates of respiratory, heart and other smoking-related diseases. In 1962, 58% of Māori men and 70% of women smoked (compared with 38% of all New Zealand men and 31% of women). In 2009, 44% of Māori smoked (compared with 18% of non-Māori), and Māori were twice as likely as others to be exposed to second-hand smoke. There were programmes to help Māori quit smoking.


Māori did not have alcohol before Europeans arrived. At first, most did not like it, and it was often called waipiro (stinking water). From the 1850s Māori attempted to control access to liquor, proclaiming some communities dry. Some Māori wanted government intervention, and a number of laws were passed limiting Māori access to alcohol. In 1884 the government declared the King Country dry in response to requests from Ngāti Maniapoto. Māori drinking and alcohol-related convictions reached the same level as those of Pākehā in the 1890s.

In 1948 many of the controls on Māori access to liquor were removed. Drinking became more common for Māori as they increasingly moved to the cities.

In the 2000s average daily consumption of alcohol was the same for Māori and non-Māori, but Māori were more likely to binge drink.


Māori did not encounter recreational drug use until they moved into the cities after the Second World War. In the 1970s it became common for young Māori to use marijuana.

In the 2000s, 64.6% of Māori aged 16–64 had used drugs recreationally at some time in their lives – a higher rate than any other ethnic group. Marijuana and BZP party pills were the most commonly used drugs.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Māori smoking, alcohol and drugs – tūpeka, waipiro me te tarukino', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 September 2013