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

by Megan Cook

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.

Māori use of tobacco

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 James Cook’s mouth, Ngāi Tahu chief Te Ihutakura is said to have thrown 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 extinguished the pipe, and 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.

    • Te Puke ki Hikurangi, June 1899, p. 1. Translation by Basil Keane. Back

Māori use of alcohol

As for other New Zealanders, Māori use of and response to alcohol has been diverse. Drinking, whether beer, wine or spirits, is often enjoyed at parties or get-togethers with family and friends, contributing to sociability, dancing, singing and talk. It can also fuel risk-taking, violence and the disruption of relationships and productive life.


Māori did not have alcohol before Europeans arrived; when they were introduced to it, most did not like it. It was called waipiro (stinking water), wai kaha (strong water), or, by the few who liked it, waipai (good water). A taste for alcohol was not acquired by significant numbers of Māori until the 1850s; once that had occurred the integration of waipiro into Māori life was vigorously managed.

Many Māori leaders were concerned about the impact of alcohol on their communities and took steps to prevent its spread and use. Hapū would declare their community or marae dry or control access to liquor. In 1884 Ngāti Maniapoto persuaded the government to declare the entire Rohe Pōtae (King Country) a dry area – the largest in New Zealand. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Māori joined the prohibition movement.

Māori concerns

An 1874 petition to Parliament by Whanganui Māori stated, ‘[Liquor] impoverishes us; our children are not born healthy because the parents drink to excess, and the child suffers; it muddles men’s brains, and they in ignorance sign important documents, and get into trouble thereby; grog also turns the intelligent men of the Maori race into fools ... grog is the cause of various diseases which afflict us. We are also liable to accidents, such as tumbling off horses and falling into the water; these things occur through drunkenness. It also leads on men to take improper liberties with other people’s wives.’1

Alcohol sometimes greased the wheels of land sales, and was used to blunt the grief Māori communities experienced as a result of high rates of death and loss of land. Binge drinking, which became common in the 1870s, often occurred in settler towns where social constraints were looser, but it was not until the 1890s that Māori drinking and alcohol-related convictions reached settler level. In the early 20th century the first crop of Māori doctors described drinking as a major social problem.

Government response

Māori petitions to governors and parliaments left a record of their thinking about waipiro and how it should be handled. However, government intervention was not universally favoured. While some Māori wanted the government to control availability of liquor, others objected to intervention, preferring to manage the matter themselves.

Numerous regulations and laws concerned with Māori and alcohol were passed. Among them were:

  • the Sale of Spirits to Natives Ordinance 1847, which prohibited the sale of spirits and limited the sale of other intoxicating liquors to Māori
  • the Outlying Districts Sale of Spirits Act 1870, which enabled the creation of a licensing system in areas with predominantly Māori inhabitants
  • the Native Licensing Act 1878, which provided for the setting up of ‘dry’ districts in rural areas with predominantly Māori inhabitants
  • the Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Amendment Act 1895, which prevented Māori women, unless married to a European, from buying alcohol
  • the Licensing Amendment Act 1904, which prevented Māori men from buying take-away alcohol in most of the North Island.

After the Second World War

The Licensing Amendment Act 1948 removed many of the controls on Māori access to liquor. Māori returned servicemen were strongly in favour of this, and although many other Māori were not, the mood in the country was for equality. Despite this, some publicans continued to discourage or ban Māori from lounge and private bars because they perceived them to be too rough and rowdy.

Lightning Rod

Opponents of King Country prohibition claimed Māori going to sly-grog shanties were being sold a mix of methylated spirits, whisky and raspberry cordial known as ‘Lightning Rod’. Later commentators suggested the claim was a scare tactic, designed to persuade Māori to vote against prohibition.

With urbanisation and plentiful employment opportunities, drinking became the norm for increasing numbers of Māori. Many marae remained alcohol-free, but even there groups would congregate outside or in someone’s nearby garage to enjoy a drink, and beer was often served at weddings and 21sts.

Binge drinkers and teetotallers

In the late 20th century average daily consumption of alcohol was the same for Māori and non-Māori, but the underlying pattern was different. About a quarter of Māori did not drink alcohol at all, and those who did drink did so less frequently than non-Māori. When Māori drank, however, they consumed more – in the late 1980s about twice as much at each drinking session. This dropped in the 2000s to about 40% more than non-Māori per session. The pattern of less frequent drinking sessions at which more was consumed continued, but the number of non-drinking Māori had dropped.

Binge drinking is more likely to cause harm to the person doing it and those around them than more frequent moderate drinking. These effects were made worse by the age structure of the Māori population, half of whom were under 24, an age group more likely to suffer alcohol-related harm. Māori were more than twice as likely to suffer severe alcohol-related problems, and four times as likely to die of a condition caused or made worse by alcohol.

Māori use both general and Māori-focused alcohol harm-reduction programmes.


Māori use of drugs

Historical use of recreational drugs

Traditionally Māori did not use intoxicants, and they did not come into contact with recreational drug use until the urbanisation of the post-Second World War years. During the 1970s use of marijuana became common among those in their teens and twenties. As these early users grew older, marijuana was increasingly normalised within Māori communities. Other drugs were used, but by small numbers of younger Māori.

In the 1980s some Māori in their teens and 20s began sniffing, breathing in or ‘huffing’ aerosols, glue, petrol, butane, paint thinners, paint or methylated spirits. Known in New Zealand as ‘solvents’, these volatile substances gave off vapours that produced a mind-altering effect. Use of solvents occasionally resulted in death.

The 2000s

A 2007–8 survey found that of Māori aged 16 to 64, 64.6% had used drugs (excluding BZP party pills) recreationally at some time in their life, a higher rate than that of any other ethnic group in New Zealand. Of Māori who had ever used drugs, 30.8% first did so at age 14 or younger, compared with 16.9% of non-Māori. 28% of Māori had used drugs recreationally in the previous 12 months, compared with 17% of Europeans, 17.9% of Pacific people and 5.7% of Asian people.

Drugs used

Drugs in recreational use in New Zealand in the 2000s included cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines, prescription stimulants, synthetic and naturally occurring hallucinogens, ketamine, GHB, nitrous oxide and BZP (benzylpiperazine) party pills. Marijuana and BZP party pills were the drugs of choice among Māori, who used both at a higher rate than the population as a whole. In 2012 the United Nations reported that use of marijuana was particularly high in Oceania (which includes New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands) – 9–15% of the population, compared to 3–5% worldwide – so the rate of use by Māori was amongst the highest in the world.

Party pills containing BZP were introduced to New Zealand in 2000. They were made a restricted substance in 2005 and became illegal in 2008. Prior to this, 23% of Māori adults had tried them, compared with 14.4% of Europeans (the group with the next-highest rate of use).

Other drugs used by Māori included methamphetamine (sometimes called ‘P’) and solvents. A 2007–8 survey found that Māori had the highest rate of lifetime use of amphetamines, with 9.8% having tried them, compared with 7.9% of Europeans, 3.7% of Pacific people and 1.8% of Asian people. Non-Māori motorcycle gangs have dominated the lucrative business of making and selling methamphetamine, but the Mongrel Mob, Black Power and Tribesmen gangs also became involved.  Use of methamphetamine in New Zealand dropped by half between 2007–8 and 2011.

A very small number of Māori youth continued to use solvents. In the 2000s the most frequently used substances were those that contained butane and butane-propane. Between 2000 and 2011, 61 people, 30 of them Māori, died as a result of butane use.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

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 April 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 September 2013