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Regional Comparison

The Big Cities Project



Prevalence of cigarette smoking


The proportion of the population aged 15 and over who currently smoke cigarettes.


Tobacco smoking is a well-recognised risk factor for many cancers and for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (particularly maternal smoking) has been identified as a major risk factor for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and respiratory problems in children. Internationally, smoking has been identified as the major cause of preventable death in OECD countries.23

Current level and trends

In 2002, 25 percent of New Zealanders aged 15 years and over were cigarette smokers. The prevalence of smoking has declined from 30 percent in 1986, with most of the decline occurring between 1987 and 1991.

Figure H4.1 Prevalence of cigarette smoking, 1986–2002

Table showing the prevalence of cigarette smoking, 1986-2002.

Source: Ministry of Health (2003b) Appendix 1, Table 11

Age and sex differences

Smoking is most prevalent among people aged 25–34 years, followed by those aged 15–24 years and those aged 35–54. Older people aged 55 and over are much less likely to smoke and have experienced the greatest decline in smoking prevalence over the past 15 years.

Smoking prevalence has been similar for both sexes since the mid-1980s. In 2002, the rate was 25 percent for males and 24 percent for females. Females are slightly more likely than males to smoke at ages 15–34, but for those aged 35 and over, smoking has generally been more prevalent among males; over the 1990s, both sexes became less likely to smoke.

Ethnic differences

Māori women have the highest smoking prevalence (52 percent), followed by Māori men (39 percent). Among Pacific peoples, smoking is more prevalent among men (35 percent) than among women (29 percent).

Since the early 1990s, smoking prevalence has declined by about three percentage points for European/Other ethnic groups but has remained relatively unchanged for Māori and Pacific peoples.24

Table H4.1 Age-standardised prevalence of cigarette smoking, by sex and ethnicity, 2002

  Percentage in each ethnic group who smoke cigarettes
Māori Pacific peoples European/Other Total
Male 39.3 34.6 23.8 26.2
Female 51.9 28.5 20.6 25.5
Total 46.4 31.9 22.1 25.8

Source: Ministry of Health (2003b) Table 1
Note: Rates are age-standardised using the WHO world population

Socio-economic differences

Smoking is more prevalent among those with lower incomes, beneficiaries and those living in the most deprived areas. An analysis of 1996 Census data shows that the proportion of smokers in the most deprived (decile 10) areas is two to three times the proportion of smokers in the least deprived (decile 1) areas for all age groups, and for both sexes.25

International comparison

In a 2001 comparison of the prevalence of adult smoking, New Zealand had a rate of 25 percent, compared with an OECD median of 27 percent.26 New Zealand ranked eighth best out of 17 OECD countries. Smoking prevalence was worst in the Netherlands (34 percent). New Zealand's rate was slightly better than that of the United Kingdom (27 percent), but considerably worse than those of Australia (19.8 percent), the United States (18.5 percent) and Canada (18.0 percent). When compared to other developed countries, New Zealand smoking levels are relatively low for males and relatively high for females.27

Tobacco consumption

Tobacco consumption can be measured from customs data or tobacco company returns. This complements the information on smoking prevalence outlined above, so providing a more comprehensive assessment of tobacco use. When expressed as cigarette equivalents per person aged 15 years and over per year, there has been a decrease of 26 percent in tobacco consumption over the last five years, from 1,352 to 999 cigarette equivalents per person. The drop in tobacco consumption has been more rapid than the drop in smoking prevalence.

Figure H4.2 Tobacco consumption, cigarette equivalent per person aged 15 years and over, 1990–2004

Table showing tobacco consumption, cigarette equivalent per person aged 15 years and over, 1990–2004.

Source: Ministry of Health