Nicotine is a sedative found in the leaves of tobacco. In the 2000s smoking tobacco was estimated to be responsible for over 4,000 deaths each year in New Zealand.
Tobacco’s role as an item of international capitalist trade dates back centuries. Its history of use in New Zealand follows similar paths to that in other western countries.
Introduced from the Americas to Europe by Christopher Columbus’s sailors, smoking spread throughout the United Kingdom in the 17th century. In the late 18th century there was an elite fashion for snuff – powdered tobacco for inhaling through the nose. In the early 19th century cigars were in style amongst the upper crust. However, for most adult male Britons the simple clay pipe remained their standby. Until the mid-19th century around 0.9 kilograms of tobacco were consumed per adult each year in Britain.
New Zealand smoking
Smoking came to New Zealand with the earliest European arrivals. Remains of clay pipes can be found at sealing and whaling camps. Tobacco was a trade item from the start, and by the early 1850s around 1.1 kilograms per person, including Māori, were being smoked each year.
Consumption rose fast in the 1860s. The pipe was a soothing pleasure for soldiers in the New Zealand wars and an almost universal habit amongst gold miners. By 1864 over 3.4 kilograms per person were being smoked. Consumption dropped to about 0.9 kilograms per person in 1890.
Song of the pipe
In 1866 this poem appeared in the Daily Southern Cross:
Tho’ the bushman may roam far away from his home,
Many miles from his hut or his station,
As he sits on a log, with no friend but his dog,
His pipe is a great consolation!
An old clay affords consolation!
His pipe is a great consolation!
As for trouble and care, he dissolves them in air,-
An old pipe affords consolation.1
A man’s companion
The high level of smoking reflected the predominance of European adult males in 19th-century New Zealand. While some rural and mining women smoked, ‘respectable’ women did not. Paeans to smoking in New Zealand newspapers often treated the companionship of the pipe as an alternative to a relationship with a woman. All-male entertainments were ‘smoke concerts’.
Smoking a pipe was seen by men as an aid to reflection, a balm which calmed workday nerves and allayed hunger. It was especially valued in outdoor situations. A traveller in 1850 wrote: ‘a good smoke has a soothing and comforting effect, after one has been thoroughly tired by walking, or exposed to the pitiless pelting of a New Zealand rainy day…’2
Middle-class men came to appreciate the pipe as an expression of individuality. Each man had his favoured types of tobacco and pipe (usually made from meerschaum, a soft mineral, or briar, the wood of Erica arborea), and an array of pouches, pipe racks and smoking hats.
Māori were introduced to the habit by whalers, and it spread quickly. By the 1840s hui were wreathed in clouds of smoke, and leaders from Te Rauparaha to Te Whiti puffed on pipes while listening to speeches. Māori women indulged equally, and Māori began growing their own tobacco.
Most tobacco was imported from Australia and was available from tobacconists, while pubs provided free clay pipes. In the 1880s almost 93% of imported tobacco was loose pipe tobacco, with only 5% as cigars, under 2% as cigarettes (hand-made and expensive) and a tiny percentage for snuff.
New Zealand newspapers were full of comments and jokes concerning the battle between those who were pro-smoking and those who were opposed. This is an example from 1845: ‘What harm is there in a pipe?’ says Puffwell. ‘None that I know of,’ implies his companion, ‘except smoking induces drinking – drinking induces intoxication – intoxication induces bile – bile induces jaundice – jaundice leads to dropsy – dropsy terminates in death. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.’3
There was extensive debate in New Zealand newspapers about smoking, often reprinted from overseas. Medical opinion was never unanimous. There was also concern that smoking led to fires, especially in a country such as New Zealand with many wooden buildings.
The main opposition to smoking, as expressed by the Anti-Nicotine Society, founded in 1883, was a social puritan view that smoking led to other vices such as drunkenness. Opposition focused on juvenile smoking, which was associated with street larrikinism. The result was the Juvenile Smoking Suppression Act 1903, which prohibited supply to anyone under 15. By 1914 there had been only 100 prosecutions.
Tobacco was heavily taxed with customs duties – which trebled between 1841 and 1879 – and excise taxes; but this was purely for revenue purposes, not as a disincentive.