Kōrero: Smoking

Whārangi 3. Smoking under attack: 1960–2000s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Smoking and health

During the 1940s and 1950s isolated articles discussed health problems caused by smoking. In 1962 a UK Royal College of Physicians report emphasised health damage by smoking, and two years later the US Surgeon General’s report linked smoking to heart disease, lung cancer and other medical problems.

The evidence mounted in New Zealand. Deaths from lung cancer per 100,000 men aged 35 to 64 rose from 10.8 in 1940 to 70 in 1977. For women the figure rose from 1.8 per 100,000 in 1940 to 27.2 in 1985.

By the late 1980s about 5,000 New Zealanders were dying each year as a result of smoking, from heart and circulatory disease, cancer, bronchitis and emphysema. That represented about one in five of all adult deaths. In the 2000s the figure remained at 4,000–5,000 deaths a year. People tended to die from smoking-related illnesses in middle age.

Anti-smoking measures

Growing evidence against smoking sparked public action. Voluntary groups like ASH (Action on Smoking and Health, founded in 1982), the Cancer Society and Heart Foundation, which came together in the Smokefree Coalition in 1995, pressured the government and tobacco companies. Slowly there was a response, although it was not effective until the late 1980s.

Government action took various forms:

  • removing advertising from television and radio (1963), billboards and cinemas (1973) and shops (1995)
  • mandating progressively stronger warnings on cigarette packets
  • creating smokefree environments: domestic airlines (1988), public transport (1990), schools, licensed premises and indoor workplaces (2004)
  • removing tobacco sponsorship in 1995 and replacing it with sponsorship from the Health Sponsorship Council
  • restricting access to tobacco for young people – from 1998 those under 18 could not purchase tobacco products
  • funding a national telephone helpline for those wanting to quit (1999)
  • subsidising nicotine patches (2000)
  • promoting smokefree days
  • taxing tobacco products primarily for health reasons.

The non-smoking ‘smoko’

In the 19th century New Zealanders began to call a morning or afternoon break in work a ‘smoko’ because it allowed time for a relaxed smoke, along with the usual cup of tea. Under the Smokefree Environments Act 2003, which took effect in 2004, ‘smoko’ rooms at workplaces had to become smokefree and smokers had to find another place to smoke during work hours. In the cities workers could often be seen huddled around outside doorways having a fag.

Decline in smoking

These measures caused a significant reduction in tobacco consumption. For the first two decades after 1962 the drop in consumption was minimal – under 20% per adult. The stronger actions of the late 1980s saw a significant drop, with over 40% fewer cigarettes consumed per adult from 1984 to 1992. Consumption then stabilised before falling again in the first decade of the 2000s.

In 2010 only 866 cigarettes were smoked per person aged 15 or over, compared with 3,347 in 1963. By volume, a quarter of the tobacco consumed was in the cheaper but more dangerous roll-your-owns, rather than in manufactured cigarettes. This was double the 1990 percentage.

The fall in the number of daily smokers was not as great because many smokers simply reduced their daily intake. In 2006–9 the figure ranged from 23% of those over 15 in Nielsen surveys to 18.1% in the New Zealand Health Survey. The 2011/12 Health Survey suggested that 17% smoked daily. The 2006 census figure was 20.7%. Compared with 36% in the 1976 census, this was still a major reduction.

New Zealand was 10th-lowest among 34 OECD countries, but higher than Canada, Australia and the United States.

The 2019/20 New Zealand Health Survey found that 11.6% of adults smoked daily.

Who smokes?

The decline varied markedly in different parts of society:


Women reduced their smoking more slowly than men, so that by 2009 there was little difference between the number of men and women smokers. Men had once been more likely to die from smoking-related illness but there were now about 2,000 deaths for each gender annually. Under the age of 24 more women than men smoked.


The 1976 census showed that Māori were significantly heavier smokers than non-Māori. After that the difference grew further. By 2009 Māori were over two-and-a-quarter times more likely to be current smokers than Europeans, and almost half of all Māori aged 15 to 64 were smokers. The rate of lung cancer among Māori women was one of the highest in the world. Pacific Island people fell between the two groups and Asian people, especially women, were much less likely to smoke.


Those educated to a higher level tended to give up smoking. In 1990 only about one in eight men over 24 with a tertiary education smoked regularly, while a third of those with three years or less of secondary education did so.

Economic deprivation

In 2009 young people living in the most deprived neighbourhood were three times more likely to smoke than those in the least deprived.

In New Zealand in 2012 smoking had become a burden of the poor, the less-educated, the Māori and Polynesian and increasingly the female.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Smoking - Smoking under attack: 1960–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/smoking/page-3 (accessed 16 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013