The health of New Zealanders improved from the 1950s. Mortality rates for young and middle-aged people fell markedly. More recently, mortality rates fell among those who were of late working age or retired.
Life expectancy for New Zealanders in 2000 was 76 years for men and 81 years for women. Māori life expectancy was lower – 68 for men and 71 for women.
New Zealand’s infant mortality rate dropped dramatically through the second half of the 20th century, from 28 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1950 to 6 in 1998. However, the country’s standing internationally slipped.
Infant mortality remains higher for Māori than non-Māori, but between 1950 and 1998 the Māori rate declined from 70 to 8 per 1,000.
Health and lifestyle
Cancer has been the leading cause of death since 1993. Other major causes are heart and cerebrovascular disease.
One in five New Zealanders aged 15 or above were smokers in 2006. Restrictions on smoking in many public places were imposed in 1990 and extended to bars and restaurants in 2004. Māori smoking rates were more than twice those of non-Māori. More Māori (proportionally) died from heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases than non-Māori.
Stubbing it out
After voluntary organisations campaigned for years against smoking, the Ministry of Health took steps to curb the habit. All cigarette packets now carried blunt health warnings. Among them were, ‘Your smoking can harm others’, ‘Smoking causes lung cancer’, ‘Smoking is addictive’, and ‘Smoking kills’. More Māori than other New Zealanders smoked, and warnings were also given in Māori.
Road fatalities and suicide
Road deaths per 1,000 population peaked in the early 1970s. Road fatalities were especially high among young men aged between 15 and 24. But between 1989 (when the road death rate was 22.7 per 100,000 population) and 2002, New Zealand showed the biggest improvement of 30 countries (including Australia, the UK and the US): the rate almost halved.
Too young to die
Young men were disproportionately represented in the figures for suicide. There was an increase in youth suicides from the 1950s. A 2004 study showed that of every 100,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 19, 25.1 killed themselves; the figure for Australia was 9.6 and for England just 3.3. The statistics painted ‘a tragic picture of untreated mental problems among New Zealand’s youth’. 1
New Zealanders have access to health services through local medical centres. Doctors remained private practitioners even after the introduction of some free or subsidised health services. Part-charges were made for most prescription medicines. Many drugs were purchased in bulk by the government buying agency, PHARMAC. This system helped keep the cost of drugs relatively low. Those on low incomes received subsidies for medical costs.
Public hospitals were funded by the central government. They provided emergency and advanced medical care free of charge. There were also private, fee-charging hospitals which were used mostly for non-urgent surgery.
At the time of the 1996–97 national health survey, 38% of New Zealanders had private health insurance, especially for non-urgent surgery.