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

Page 1. Māori use of tobacco

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First use

Māori first saw tobacco smoked when the first Europeans arrived in the late 1700s. Tobacco was quickly taken up by Māori, usually smoked in clay pipes or chewed. Terms for smoking include kai paipa and momi paipa (literally ‘eating pipe’ and ‘sucking pipe’), which refer to these uses. Other terms are kai hikareti and momi hikareti (‘eating cigarette’ and ‘sucking cigarette’). Tobacco is known as tupeka – a transliteration of the English word.

Along with muskets (firearms), gunpowder and alcohol, tobacco had become a standard trade item by the early 1800s. It was used by Pākehā to pay Māori (including children) for provisions and services, or given as a gift. Chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi were given tobacco, sometimes by the cask. Once plants became available, Māori grew tobacco in their community gardens.

Demon or man?

Seeing smoke issuing from Captain James Cook’s mouth, Ngāi Tahu chief Te Ihutakura threw water over him to see if his head was burning. He told the Māori with him that if the water put the fire out, the white chief was human. If it did not, he was an atua, a demon, and should be killed. The water put the pipe out, so it was decided that Cook was a man.

Māori became heavy smokers, usually using pipes, and the habit was not limited by gender or age. Smoking by men was taken for granted, and 19th-century Māori women were often painted or photographed with a pipe at a time when smoking by Pākehā women was seen as unacceptable. Māori youth and children also smoked, although it is not known how common this was. In 1899 the Māori newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi commented:

Me korero ake tatau mo te tupeka, me te tikareti, e Kainganuitia ana tenei auahi e nga taane e nga wahine, me nga tamariki taane wahine, ko ta te Pakeha tikanga mo tenei kai mo te tupeka, ma nga taane Kaumatua anake e kai, kia rite ra no nga tau o nga tamariki taane, ka kai ai i te paipa tupeka, kaore rawa nga wahine e kai, me nga Tai-Tamahine.
Let's talk about tobacco and cigarettes. These smoke products are used strongly by men, by women, and youth. The rule for Pākehā is that only older men smoke tobacco, and it is only at an appropriate age that men start to smoke, women and young women don't smoke at all.1

Effects of smoking

Tobacco’s impact on health – contributing to some cancers, heart and respiratory diseases – was not officially accepted until the mid-20th century. In any case, the effects of smoking on Māori were masked in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries because:

  • information about Māori health was piecemeal
  • Māori contact with the health system was limited, and Māori deaths and their cause were often unrecorded
  • the rate of smoking-related diseases was swamped by the very high infectious-disease rates, the multiple illnesses often suffered and the relatively early age of death.

Retrospective evidence of the toll tobacco was taking can be found. In the early 20th century, for example, respiratory diseases were the commonest problems treated by native medical officers (in 1907 they accounted for 24.4% of the total).

Early opposition

There was some opposition to the use of tobacco among Māori. In the early 20th century Rua Kēnana, Tūhoe prophet, was strongly opposed to smoking. He banned it from his community, Maungapōhatu. The Maori Councils Act 1900 empowered Māori councils to prohibit the use of tobacco by children and fine those who supplied it to them. It is not known whether the councils used this provision – poorly resourced, they had other, more urgent, problems demanding attention.

Pattern of use

In the mid-20th century the dangers of smoking were officially recognised. By this time, tobacco and smoking (increasingly cigarettes rather than pipes) were embedded in Māori communities. Information on Māori use of tobacco began to accumulate; the very high rates of respiratory, heart and other smoking-related diseases also became clear.

An early study of rural Māori, reported in 1962, found that 58% of men and 70% of women smoked. Rates in the general population (both Māori and non-Māori) were 38% for men and 31% for women. This pattern of Māori women smoking in greater numbers than men was maintained over time, and is the reverse of that in the non-Māori population.

The 2000s

In 2011–12, 41% of Māori adults smoked (compared with 18% of all New Zealand adults). Although high, this rate was part of a downward trend evident since 1990, when more than 50% of Māori were smokers. In 2009 Māori women aged 20–24 had the highest smoking rate in New Zealand: 61% were smokers. Māori were twice as likely as non-Māori to be exposed to second-hand smoke at home and in the car, and the average age at which smoking began was 11.5 years rather than the 12.7 of non-Māori.

Quitting and not starting

From 1999 Māori-focused quit-smoking programmes were in place and proving effective. Māori also used the generally available Quitline and associated programmes. Just over 62% of Māori smokers had tried to quit in the five years up to 2009 – the rate of attempted quitting was similar to that of non-Māori. In 2011 there was a record drop in starting to smoke among young people, led by 14–15-year-old Māori girls, whose take-up rate of tobacco fell from 16.3% to 11.3%. Many marae and all kōhanga reo (pre-school language nests) and kura kaupapa (Māori-medium schools) are smoke-free.

  1. Te Puke ki Hikurangi, June 1899, p. 1. Translation by Basil Keane. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Māori smoking, alcohol and drugs – tūpeka, waipiro me te tarukino - Māori use of tobacco', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 November 2018)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 Sep 2013