The history of tobacco in New Zealand

Māori first saw tobacco being smoked when the Europeans arrived in the late 1700s. Tobacco was quickly taken up by Māori, usually smoked in clay pipes or chewed. By the early 1800s tobacco had become a standard trade item, along with muskets (firearms), gunpowder and alcohol. Europeans used tobacco to pay Māori (including children) for provisions and services, or it was given as a gift. Gifting of tobacco is still common today.

The Chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi were given tobacco, sometimes by the cask. Once plants became available, Māori grew tobacco in their community gardens.

Māori became heavy smokers, and by 1962, 58 percent of Māori men and 70 percent of Māori women smoked. At that same time only 38 percent of non-Māori men and 31 percent of non-Māori women smoked. 

Graph showing the percent of smokers in 1962

What has New Zealand done about smoking?

The first building in the world to have a smokefree policy was the Old Government Building in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1876. This was because they were worried about threat of fire, as it is the second largest wooden building in the world.[2]

New Zealand has been at the forefront of tobacco control internationally for some time, the government has regulated tobacco for a number of decades, and smoking rates have steadily gone down. However, even now in 2015 more Māori still smoke than non- Māori.

A tobacco control programme was initiated in 1984 with health education, legislation, price and smoking cessation measures. The 1986 budget raised the tobacco excise, the first to do so for health reasons. An increase of 53 percent was followed by a rapid decline in tobacco consumption between 1985 and 1990. Health warnings, a ban on sales to minors, restrictions on tobacco advertising and other measures followed.

The Smoke‐free Environments Act was passed in 1990. Among other things the Act banned tobacco advertising and sponsorship, restricted smoking in indoor workplaces and some public places, banned sales to minors and established the Health Sponsorship Council. The Act was strengthened in 1997 and 2003.

New Zealand became the third country in the world to make all indoor workplaces including bars and restaurants smokefree in December 2004, making us at the forefront on tobacco control internationally.

In 2011 the New Zealand government announced its commitment to a Smokefree Aoteraroa by 2025.