Editorial: Smoking culture slowly dying out

The role of cigarettes in our culture is being burned down to the filter, going by the latest census figures.

The decline in the number of smokers over the past seven years, most pronounced among young people, is extremely encouraging, and makes the Government's "Smokefree 2025" campaign seem less like rhetoric and more like an almost-realistic goal.

The proportion of people in the Manawatu/Whanganui region who identified themselves as regular smokers has fallen from 24 per cent to 18 per cent - a drop of 9282 people.

Even more promising were the statistics for those aged 15-19 years, where the number who called themselves smokers almost halved, from 23.2 per cent in 2006 to 12.6 per cent. For those of us a generation or two on from adolescence, to think back on how many of our friends smoked and to consider the ratio is now close to one teen in 10, it is startling. Even more alarming is to think back a little further and recall, as children, we were able to buy candy sticks, shaped and packaged as if they were cigarettes, from the corner dairy - and boy were they popular.

It is easy to forget how prevalent cigarette advertising and sponsorship was before the Smoke-free Environments Act was introduced in 1990, and what seems like no-brainer laws now were contentious proposals at the time.

When the National Party came into power later that same year, it promised to repeal the ban on tobacco sponsorship and advertising.

Thankfully it did not and, combined with tax hikes, bans on smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants, and increased awareness of health risks, and myriad other initiatives, an environment making it easier for smokers to quit and less tempting for non-smokers to start has been established. New Zealand is ahead of the game.

On the same day this week the census data was released, the US Food and Drug Administration launched its first-ever national campaign to curb youth smoking. The first Kiwi campaign aimed at young people, Why Start?, was introduced in 1996.

Nevertheless, the idea that sustained pressure could get the number of smokers in New Zealand to below 5 per cent - the target of Smokefree 2025 - remains a tough ask. But even a decrease to 10 per cent or 12 per cent would have considerable ramifications for the health of Kiwis and the burden on our health system.

As we await further census data, likely to feature grimmer reading when it comes to our booze culture and obesity, those fighting an uphill battle to promote change on these fronts can take encouragement and hopefully a few battle tips from successive, and now clearly successful, anti-smoking campaigns.

Manawatu Standard