Story: Society

Page 5. The health of the nation

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The health of New Zealanders improved from the 1950s. The mortality rates of young and middle-aged people fell markedly. More recently, mortality rates have been falling among those who are of late working age or retired.

Life expectancy

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.

Infant mortality

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. Nevertheless, the country’s standing has slipped internationally since the later 20th century.

Infant mortality is higher for Māori than non-Māori, but from 1950 to 1998 the Māori rate declined faster (from 70 to 8 per 1,000) than the rate for the entire population.

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) die 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 carry blunt health warnings. Among them are, ‘Your smoking can harm others’, ‘Smoking causes lung cancer’, ‘Smoking is addictive’ and ‘Smoking kills’. More Māori than other New Zealanders smoke, and warnings are also given in Māori.


In the 1990s there was an alarming increase in the levels of meningococcal disease, and also a re-emergence of tuberculosis, especially among Pacific Islanders.

Road fatalities and suicide

Road deaths per 1,000 population peaked in the early 1970s. Road fatalities are 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 has shown the biggest improvement of 30 countries (including Australia, the UK and the US): the rate was almost halved.

Too young to die

Young men are disproportionately represented in the figures for suicide. There has been an increase in youth suicides from the 1950s onwards. A 2004 study showed that of every 100,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 19, 25.1 kill themselves; the figure for Australia is 9.6 and for England just 3.3. The statistics paint ‘a tragic picture of untreated mental problems among New Zealand’s youth’. 1

Health services

New Zealanders have access to health services through their local medical centres. Doctors remained private practitioners even after the introduction of some free or subsidised health services. Part-charges are now made for most prescription medicines. Many drugs are purchased in bulk by the government buying agency, Pharmac. This system helps keep the cost of drugs relatively low. Those on low incomes receive subsidies for medical costs.

Public hospitals are fully funded by the central government. They provide emergency and advanced medical care free of charge. There are also private, fee-charging hospitals which are used mostly for non-urgent surgery.

At the time of the 1996–97 national health survey, 38% of all New Zealanders were carrying private health insurance, especially for non-urgent surgery.

  1. Christchurch Press, 8 June 2004. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Society - The health of the nation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 April 2020)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005