Quakes spark increase in smoking in Canterbury

EASING NERVES: Renee Knipe, 18, started with an occasional cigarette after the quakes but is now lighting up 10 times a day.
EASING NERVES: Renee Knipe, 18, started with an occasional cigarette after the quakes but is now lighting up 10 times a day.

Cantabrians are lighting up to cope with earthquake stress.

In an unprecedented setback for national health targets and anti-smoking campaigns, research indicates the Garden City is relying on a nicotine fix to help ease stress.

Smoking in New Zealand is in decline (dropping from 20 per cent in 2006-07 to 18 per cent in 2011-12) - but the latest research shows Christchurch is bucking the trend.

Figures, surveys, hospital admissions and anecdotal evidence provided to the city's health professionals all tell a similar story of a spike in smoking in the city.

The data stem from diverse research projects and Christchurch's health sector is awaiting the 2013 census results to find out just how bad the problem is.

Up to 5000 Kiwis die each year from conditions relating to smoking or second-hand smoke.

The Ministry of Health accepts Canterbury's quakes may have caused a rise in smoking and has already put in place extra quit-smoking support in the region.

Canterbury District Health Board smokefree manager Vivien Daley said: "Every indication or study and all anecdotal evidence we have in our own DHB shows that we have bucked the national trend since the quake."

She cited an increase in the prevalence of smokers admitted to Christchurch hospitals and two University of Otago studies.

One study surveyed 557 Christchurch people who were actively trying to quit smoking in a clinical drug trial at the time of the quakes. The respondents were using nicotine patches and a nicotine mouth spray.

More than 60 per cent relapsed after the February quake.

Another study of 1001 Cantabrians found more than a quarter of ex-smokers had relapsed post-quake and 35 per cent of smokers had increased their consumption of tobacco.

Lead researcher, CDHB respiratory physician Associate Professor Lutz Beckert, said most of the smokers attributed their relapse to high stress levels after the quakes.

The phenomenon of ex-smokers returning to cigarettes post-disaster had been internationally documented and was observed after Hurricane Katrina and the Australian bushfires, he said.

Beckert's research is set to be published in an international medical journal and was presented to the CDHB yesterday.

CDHB chief executive David Meates told The Press Cantabrians were falling back into their old smoking habits as a "coping mechanism".

"We are bucking a national trend and that is a result of the impact of the quakes on our health and wellbeing," he said.

"Since the quakes, a considerable number of people are doing a minimum amount of exercise in conjunction with an increase in smoking and binge drinking and that is certainly not a healthy sign for the community."

The CDHB continues to fall short on meeting its national quit-smoking targets and Meates said it was a key focus of the board to keep the anti-smoking messages "accessible and visible" in the community.

The doctor-based national health target calls for 90 per cent of smokers to be provided with advice to quit during doctor appointments and the CDHB is currently sitting at only 26 per cent, according to a CDHB quarterly health target report.

Meates attributed this to the way GPs have been capturing and recording data since the quakes.

The percentage of smokers admitted to Christchurch hospitals has also been on a downward trend for years, but it recently increased.

From January to September 2012, 16 per cent of inpatients identified themselves as smokers. This increased to 17 per cent in the past six months.

Daley said the quakes were the only event she was aware of that had significantly set back CDHB smoking targets.

Smoking figures for pre-quake Christchurch were "way down" but, Daley said, the disaster had thrown a "rather big spanner in the works".

She blamed the rise on the quakes, the aftershocks and the insurance and Earthquake Commission woes many Cantabrians were facing.

"We are all under a lot of stress in Christchurch and have been for the last few years and we will be for a few more years yet. We are all doing all sorts of things like drinking, smoking and putting on weight," she said.

"For someone who has been a smoker long-term, their first reaction is to reach for a cig when they are under some sort of stress."

Daley firmly advocated against smoking as a way to cope with stress and said tobacco often caused "physiological and financial stress".

"Smoking is not a coping mechanism for stress. The only thing smoking does is relieve the cravings, caused by addiction."

It appeared smokers and ex-smokers were driving the increase as other research showed a decline in smoking among Christchurch 14 and 15-year-olds, Daley said.

She urged any smoker to seek help from Quitline, their GPs or local smokefree providers.

Canterbury University health science lecturer Dr Mark Wallace-Bell worked with 40 Cantabrians who had relapsed or were smoking a considerable amount more over a six-month period last year.

He offered advice and support to quit on behalf of Smokefree Canterbury and said the service had been in "high demand".

Some of the smokers cited the ongoing aftershocks, the lack of certainty, the loss of their homes and broken relationships as reasons to return to smoking, he said.

"People just felt they would throw the towel in on smoking because ‘who cares, everything is buggered - I might as well smoke'."


Taking a long drag on her cigarette, Renee Knipe laughs about how she used to be "so anti-smoking" she would snap her mother's cigarettes.

Exhaling a cloud of smoke, the 18-year-old says she now lights up about 10 times a day.

And she blames the earthquakes.

Knipe picked up her first cigarette "straight after" the September 2010 quake in an attempt to ease her nerves.

At the time her parents were "chain-smoking a pack a day", her older brother and sister were smokers and so were all her friends.

"I don't actually have one friend who doesn't smoke," she says, taking another drag.

"I was getting quite depressed after the quakes and I was always around smokers so I just picked one up and thought, ‘Maybe I'll just have one'. Then it was two, then three and so on. Now it's 10."

Knipe, who was born and raised in Christchurch, said she had always been opposed to smoking when she was growing up.

"I hated it. I was so anti-smoking I would grab mum's smokes when I was 6 and snap them all."

Now, she is struggling to quit.

Knipe wants to quit because she hopes to become a police officer one day "and you have to be fit for that".

The Press