(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsFebruary 7, 2024

Thank you for (not) smoking: A history of New Zealand’s efforts to curb cigarette use

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

The new government is facing scrutiny over plans to wind back proposed smokefree legislation. But what are the current laws – and how did we get here?

New Zealand’s smoking laws have faced increased scrutiny in recent weeks, with revelations the coalition government intends to wind back new legislation intended to reduce smoking rates. Just last week, the news cycle was dominated by questions over the potential involvement of the tobacco lobby in the formulation of the government’s policy (something that has been denied by the prime minister) and the emergence of documents linked to associate health minister Casey Costello that appeared to downplay the negative impacts of smoking.

All of this has given the Labour Party, fresh into opposition, a prominent issue to tackle as it looks to regain ground following last year’s devastating election loss. Conversely, it also gave the government a chance to tout New Zealand’s relatively low – and still decreasing – smoking rates. The latest figures show the rate of daily smoking was 6.8% in 2022/23, down from 8.6% the previous year and 16.4% a decade ago.

But what you may not realise, especially if you’re a youngster like myself, is just how recent an innovation anti-smoking legislation is. It may have been decades since cigarette advertising was banned, but the decisions to limit who can smoke – or where you can smoke – are confoundingly modern moves.

So what actually are our tobacco laws at the moment? And how did we end up here in the first place? 

The first moves

New Zealand’s history with smokefree policy dates back to 1876 when Wellington’s iconic Old Government Building became the first building in the world to have a smokefree rule implemented. While world-leading, that policy had nothing to do with health and was actually instated because of the fear that smoking may prove a fire risk to the large wooden building. Still, it was a start. 

For roughly the next 100 years, cigarettes and tobacco were widely available – though efforts to disincentive smoking started in the 1940s and smoking was recognised as a leading cause of cancer in the following decade. 

A brief scroll through online records recovered dozens of published adverts or positive articles about cigarettes and smoking. It’s not surprising, but it’s just a bit weird when you think about the strictly enforced rules of the 21st century. For example, an advert from a 1907 New Zealand newspaper included “six important points” for cigarette smokers, which included the very important point: “Insist on your cigarette being free from Arsenic”.

In 1923, an article was published in the New Zealand Times titled “Smoking a cigarette: When and how to do it”, which included tips on how to extract the “maximum of pleasure from a cigarette” (this involved choosing a cigarette that suits your “palate”, as if all smoking doesn’t just taste of ash).

“As to the best time for a cigarette, the cigarette smoker and his doctor will never agree,” the article continued. “A cigarette never yields greater enjoyment and displays its qualities to better advantage than before breakfast, particularly with a cup of coffee.” Take from this century-old (and very outdated) advice what you will.

Image: Tina Tiller

It wasn’t until 1963 that advertising of cigarettes was outlawed, but only on television and radio. About a decade later, cinema and billboard advertising was banned and print adverts were finally prohibited in 1990. Also during this period, smoking was banned on domestic flights (in 1988) and later international flights (1996).

Finally, age restrictions

Interestingly, it was also around this time – 1988 to be precise – that age restrictions were first introduced, stopping under 16s from purchasing cigarettes. Yes, until this point there was nothing to stop a child from buying smokes even though the harms of cigarettes had been recognised for decades. In 1997, the smoking age was raised to 18, where it remains to this day.

According to the Smokefree website, New Zealand had the quickest reduction in smoking consumption among OECD nations between 1985 and 1990. Tax increases on cigarettes were also introduced at least annually from 1990, and several landmark changes were implemented that same year via a new piece of legislation: the Smoke-free Environments Act.

This law banned smoking on public transport and placed restrictions in most cafes, restaurants and in many indoor workplaces. It also widened the ban for under 16s to any “tobacco” products. The then-health minister – and future prime minister – Helen Clark would call this law one of her proudest achievements

By 1995, tobacco company sponsorships had ended and signs in shops were also outlawed. This year also marked the end of events being controversially sponsored by cigarette brands. For example, for more than 30 years up until this point, cigarette manufacturers Benson & Hedges leant their brand name to a major design awards. “As an Oscar is to actors, a Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Award was to aspiring New Zealand fashion designers,” reads an article on the NZ Fashion Museum website. Following the 1995 abolition of smoking sponorships, the awards were briefly renamed the “Smokefree Fashion Awards”.

A year later census figures showed that 24% of New Zealanders were regular smokers – a number that has now dropped well into the single digits.

A 2003 amendment to the Smoke-Free Environments Act (enforced the following year) totally banned indoor smoking as part of its goal of reducing secondhand smoke, meaning you could no longer have a cheeky puff over a beer (indoors) or while at a nightclub. You could now only smoke in a car with the “consent” of other passengers and smoking at schools and early childhood centres was also outlawed.

Cigarette butts
(Image: Getty Images)

Outdoor smoke-free rules were also introduced in certain areas around this time, for example at select council-owned parks. Speaking from experience (as a park patron, not a park smoker), these rules are less consistently enforced than if you were to, say, light up in a bar or on a plane. The 2003 law change was a conscience vote, meaning that MPs did not have to vote along agreed party lines. Of the three parties comprising the new coalition government – National, Act and New Zealand First – almost all voted against the law.

These rules are generally the same as those enforced now, though New Zealand’s 2025 smokefree goal – which actually references a smoking population of below 5% – was announced in 2011.

Major updates to packaging also came in the late 2000s and 2010s. It was in 2008 when health warnings (and those terrifying health images) first appeared on cigarettes, and a decade later that plain packaging of cigarettes was introduced. Since 2012, you also haven’t been able to display tobacco products in stores – which is a good thing for several reasons, one of which being that you don’t get a jumpscare from seeing a blackened lung staring out from a packet of ciggies. 

One step forward, one step back

Jump forward a few years and we reach one of the more significant updates to the law. In late 2022, the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Amendment Act was passed, bringing with it a swathe of new anti-smoking initiatives. Most prominently, it included a move to stop the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009 – meaning people who would turn 18 in 2027. By 2050, for example, 40-year-olds would be too young to buy cigarettes. The law also reduced the number of retail outlets allowed to sell smoked tobacco products and reduced nicotine content in these products.

“Thousands of people will live longer, healthier lives and the health system will be $5 billion better off from not needing to treat the illnesses caused by smoking,” the then-health minister Ayesha Verrall said at the time. 

But in November last year, just a month after the general election, the new National-led coalition announced it would wind back the restrictions, partly to pay for its proposed tax cuts. 

“Coming back to those extra sources of revenue and other savings areas that will help us to fund the tax reduction, we have to remember that the changes to the smoke-free legislation had a significant impact on the government books,” finance minister Nicola Willis said.

While the government appears intent on pushing forward with its plan to ditch the 2022 law, it’s generated significant backlash from the public and health experts. Rallies were held around the country late last year, including in front of parliament, in protest of the government’s actions. The UK, which followed our lead by announcing its own plans to phase out smoking, has pledged to continue with its plan despite our government’s move. Questions over Casey Costello’s role as associate health minister continue to be asked, with the opposition calling for her to be removed from the portfolio.

Keep going!