Listen to kids when they tell you to stop smoking

While we’re learning to listen to the younger generations on other things, it’s time to prioritise tamariki voices about our smokefree future too.

In a traditional whānau unit, kaumātua and grandparents hold the greatest responsibility for the learning and development of our young. In talking to one kaumātua recently, he shared that mokopuna, when broken down, translates to moko – your face or signature, and puna – pond or spring. That is, our young ones are the mirror image and reflection of our leaders.

Protecting tamariki from tobacco smoke exposure in cars was one of Dame Tariana Turia’s priorities and a recommendation of the Māori Affairs Select Committee inquiry into tobacco in 2010. When Associate Health Minister, Jenny Salesa, finally announced there would be Smokefree Cars legislation many and health advocates, including Māori, sighed a breath of relief for what has taken a decade to achieve.

We are concerned by various articles published recently that we believe misrepresents the hard work of the many people who have supported Smokefree Cars legislation, how the legislation is likely to be implemented and the impacts that it will have.

Harm caused by second-hand smoke increases children’s risk of pneumonia and exacerbates asthma. People who smoke in the presence of children are also role modeling smoking behaviour and there is a significant risk of children taking up smoking. Evidence indicates 20% of children are exposed to smoking in cars and this is declining at an all too small rate. Of particular concern is that a higher proportion of Māori and Pasifika children are being exposed to tobacco smoke in cars. This is not because Māori and Pasifika smokers are less likely to be concerned about their children but more to the fact that there are proportionately more Māori or Pasifika smokers.

There is also very good evidence that an overwhelming majority of people, including those who smoke, support Smokefree Cars legislation. In this sense, such legislation isn’t being ‘imposed’ on people, it’s catching up with public opinion. We wonder if those who’ve come out in opposition of this law have had taken the time to look at the evidence or appreciate the effort that had gone in to developing the legislation before they dismissed supporters as “Pākehā academics.”

We’re not without precedent either; there are plenty of laws about appropriate behaviour in cars that are designed to protect the health and wellbeing of children. We’re also behind the curve when compared to countries like the UK, the US, France and Australia who passed similar legislation over ten years ago.

When reading media coverage around this legislation, we have consistently found ourselves asking, “where are the voices of tamariki in this?”. It seems this voice has been hijacked and instead it becomes about those who smoke. We believe that nothing about tamariki means nothing without tamariki. With this perspective, over the last few weeks, we have been welcomed into the homes, playgrounds and backyards of tamariki who shared their thoughts on this new law.

Many of the tamariki we talked to held strongly negative views towards smoking. Their perspectives were most informed by whānau education and also legislative changes to tobacco control, for example, messaging on plain packaged cigarettes:

My mum teaches me about smoking being yuck. Smoking is bad for you ‘cause your lungs get rotten. And all your body parts will get black and rotten. Like your brain, your heart, everything

– Siuta Mesui (age 5)

 Sometimes I see people smoking on the street and I look away because cigarettes spread germs. I learnt about it on the internet when googling at dad’s house. I think it’s a good idea for the prime minister to ban smoking in cars with kids because it’s safer.

– Nina Van Kampen (age 8)

I know this because my mum tells us. She talks. And we’ve seen it on the [cigarette] boxes, all the pictures. It’s disgusting. Each one has a message saying it’s bad for you; it has a reason about the body part, like your lungs.

– Sione Mesui (age  8)

Despite these passionate views on being smoke free, tamariki held varying perspectives on whether they would feel comfortable advocating against others smoking in cars.

“I would be too scared to say anything if I was with an adult smoking in the car. Smoking hurts really bad, because it hurts my head, with car smoke or smoking by me. It gives me headaches, and I don’t feel well. I’ve been in cars when someone was smoking and it hurt my brain and my mind, and it made things taste funny.”

– Erena Shaw (age 9)

What a yuck thing to do. I dunno if I’d say anything but it smells yuck and kills you. I see my friend’s dad smoke but they all go out the back away from us. I’ve never been in a car with someone smoking but if I was, I’d hate it.

– Amiria Waru (age 8)

Many described having an important role in supporting whānau members to quit. While some described the intergenerational patterns of smoking, many viewed their mums as role models when it came to being smoke free.

Once I saw my nanny smoking, and I said to her to stop, and she started to stop because of that. I think my mum tried smoking when she was a teenager but not anymore. My aunty and nana vape sometimes outside. I’m not really sure, but I think it’s not as bad as smoking.

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– Sione Mesui (age 9)

Within te ao Māori, our relationship to our children is often grounded within the reciprocal tuakana/teina dynamic, whereby an older or more experienced person guides a younger one. This working relationship can be reversed at any time, thus the child becomes our expert and guides us towards higher knowledge. Similarly, the word ‘ako’ means both to teach and to learn, leaving space for kaiako, teachers, to also be taught. Recognising their leadership is all the more necessary when we realise that tamariki, out of any demographic, are contributing most significantly to our drop in smoking rates.

It is an injustice that our children are not fully recognised for their auahi kore leadership, but it would be an ever greater injustice if we don’t have measures which protect their right to health.

This article was written collaboratively by kaimahi from Hāpai te Hauora, Cancer Society and Otago University. These organisations work within the smokefree sector in Aotearoa and continue to contribute to the Smokefree 2025 kaupapa by way of health advocacy, research and health promotions.


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