Story: Smoking

Page 2. Cigarettes rule: 1900–1960

All images & media in this story

The rise of the cigarette

In 1839 a slave in North Carolina used charcoal to restart a fire for curing a tobacco crop – accidentally inventing a new curing process. It produced mild, light-coloured tobacco with smoke that could be more comfortably inhaled than that of most other tobaccos available.

In 1881 James Bonsack in the USA patented a machine that could produce 300 cigarettes a minute.

Cigarette smoking – including roll-your-owns – took off, although in New Zealand it was some time before tailor-made cigarettes were universally popular. (Not until 1955 did they constitute over half of tobacco products.)

In New Zealand annual tobacco consumption rose steadily from a low point of under 0.9 kilograms per person in 1890, to almost 1.4 kilograms in 1920. This was partly because women took up smoking cigarettes.

A wartime issue

In the Second World War two days of the week were red letter days. For New Zealand soldiers, both at home and stationed overseas, Friday was payday but Thursday was cigarette day. The authorities issued 50 throat-burning fags with names like ‘Spitfire’ to each soldier. It satisfied the soldiers until the next day’s pay allowed them to buy finer-quality cigarettes. The Americans in camp in New Zealand considered themselves more fortunate – they were issued with ‘Lucky Strikes’, containing finest Virginia tobacco.

New Zealand prisoners of war each received 400 cigarettes a month sent by the New Zealand government.

The effect of the wars

The two world wars further encouraged cigarette smoking. Men serving overseas found cigarettes a comfort for frayed nerves, and parcels sent to troops inevitably included tobacco.

Meanwhile women taking up paid work while the men were at war had cash and a desire to escape anxiety. Cigarettes became attractive to them.


Advertisements for smoking appeared in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and at the movies. This advertising, along with examples of glamorous movie stars who smoked, targeted women, the growing market.

At first advertisements promoted the view that women should smoke for leisure – at parties and dances. Eventually the slogan of Player’s cigarettes was, ‘Whatever the occasion’, while another brand’s slogan was, ‘It’s always time for a Capstan’.

Cigarettes were promoted as a social lubricant, a way of putting people at ease, readily consumed in the hustle and bustle of city life. The image of the contemplative, solitary pipe-smoker faded.

Battle of the brands

The National Tobacco Company promoted American-style cigarettes and pushed the value of Virginian tobacco with such brand names as ‘Bears’ and ‘Craven “A”’. The British-based firm W.D. & H.O. Wills drew on imperial associations with their ‘Army Club’ and ‘Three Castles’ brands. New Zealand leaf used for roll-your-owns or pipes was patriotically marketed as the ‘Silver Fern’ brand. Companies also used gimmicks such as collectable cigarette cards of football heroes.

Smoking at its peak

In 1960 New Zealand had the sixth-highest level of tobacco consumption out of 23 OECD countries. It was exceeded only by the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia.

Barbers made selling tobacco products a central part of their business, while ashtrays were required for all social situations. There were four or five smoking carriages on trains for every one non-smoking carriage.

Weak opposition

The spread of cigarette smoking and inhaling and the rise in women smokers briefly heightened opposition. Smoking was regarded by some as a poison and a waste of money. But its patriotic role in two world wars quietened doubts. Doctors recommended smoking as an aid for nerves, and smoking was even encouraged during the 1918 flu epidemic as a preventive. In the late 1930s the appearance of filters further stilled doubts.

The New Zealand Health Department issued its first warning against smoking in 1945, although few listened. By the 1950s the first signs of increasing lung cancer rates were appearing.

Home production

Local tobacco growers and cigarette factories emerged spasmodically, and rising consumption was aided by the New Zealand government’s assistance for local production.

In the 1880s and again in 1910 the government cut the duty payable on New Zealand leaf. In the interwar years the government guaranteed a minimum price for leaf, and tobacco products began to be manufactured by Gerhard Husheer’s New Zealand Tobacco Company at Napier. (In 1921 it would essentially become the National Tobacco Company.) The British firm W. D. & H. O. Wills also set up a factory in Wellington in 1919. During the Second World War these became protected industries and a requirement for using 30–40% of local leaf was introduced.

The British cigarette company Rothmans entered New Zealand in 1957, merging with the National Tobacco Company and bringing a new energy to the trade. By 1972 it had 73% of the market. The 1958 ‘black budget’ raised the price of smokes, but also banned imports of cigarettes. Local grower numbers and tobacco production, like the consumption of cigarettes, reached record levels in 1963 – just as the situation changed.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Smoking - Cigarettes rule: 1900–1960', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 March 2020)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013