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by Jock Phillips

Attitudes to smoking have changed since the early 20th century when doctors recommended it as a relaxant and a flu preventive. Nonetheless, in the first decade of the 21st century over 4,000 New Zealanders a year were dying from smoking-related illness.

The age of the pipe: the 19th century

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.

European background

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 smoking

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.

The trade

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.

Puffwell’s question

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.

    • Daily Southern Cross, 2 June 1866, p. 3 Back
    • New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian, 12 October 1850, p. 4 Back
    • New Zealander, 1 November 1845, p. 4 Back

Cigarettes rule: 1900–1960

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 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

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

Meanwhile, women taking up paid work while the men were at war also 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 yourself 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 quality of Virginian tobacco with brand names such 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 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 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 allayed doubts. Doctors recommended smoking as an aid for nerves, and it was encouraged during the 1918 influenza 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, but 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 government assistance for local producers.

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 this became the National Tobacco Company.) The British firm W. D. & H. O. Wills set up a factory in Wellington in 1919. During the Second World War these became protected industries and were required to use 30–40% of local leaf.

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 cigarette imports. Local grower numbers and tobacco production, and the consumption of cigarettes, all reached record levels in 1963.

Smoking under attack: 1960–2000s

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Smoking', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013