Opinion: It’s just another day for smokers

May 31 is World Smokefree Day. This year's theme is "It's about whānau".

Associate Professor Marewa Glover.

By Associate Professor Marewa Glover

It can be confusing keeping up with what colour t-shirt, socks or nose you’re supposed to put on in the morning if you’re a health worker. Last Friday was Pink Shirt Day raising awareness about the damaging effects of bullying. This time last year we were wearing red for the month of May to raise awareness and funds for women’s heart health. Today is World Smokefree Day - you can either wear your black ‘It’s About Whānau’ t-shirt or a previous year’s World Smokefree Day t-shirt. Either of them will do.

Whatever colour shirt we wear today, for many smokers it’s just another day. It’s just another day calculating how much to pay off the power or water bill to avoid the reconnection fee. It’s just another day working out what the kids can eat when they get home from school and what to give them for dinner.

I stand, alongside smokefree workers today, to celebrate our achievements. They are significant for Pākehā and high income earners. But we need to change tack to bring about the same gains for smokers who are Māori, Pasifika and/or from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Their disproportionately higher smoking rates have floated along unchanged for the last nine years. Around 40 per cent of Māori and just under 30 per cent of Pasifika people living in the most deprived neighbourhoods smoke. 

Overall 85 per cent of the population are now committed non-smokers and if asked, they support tougher treatment of smokers. Today we’ll hear again the call for higher taxes on tobacco, extended bans on smoking in outside areas and on all Government-owned property. Housing New Zealand might still rent to people who smoke, unlike many private landlords, but they are considering making their properties smokefree too. No more ciggie on the back step for their tenants. They’ll have to traipse in their PJs out to the street where the ‘good’ citizens can better cast their dirty looks. Surely we can do better than this?

Thirty years ago smoking and smokers were everywhere. Now some of us enjoy an almost completely smokefree existence. Smokers have been exiled outside to congregate together, preferably in back streets or in poorer suburbs. “Smoking islands” is the glamorous name used by researchers to describe these areas. But, these areas are not glamorous.

The statistics on who smokes have changed and new technologies like nicotine vaporisers offer an end to smoking. Science is debunking old facts about nicotine and there’s a call for public health to shift the focus to one of uplifting and supporting people to make informed choices about their behaviours.

Nearly everyone is in agreement that continuing on the current path is not going to achieve a Smokefree 2025. A new generation of young people born in the 21st century is soon to turn 18 - an age when smoking uptake skyrockets. To be relevant to them, and the rest of the people who still smoke, we need to leave our message emblazoned t-shirt at home. We need to build a bridge from our out-of-date island to theirs and begin restoring dignity and trust. If we can do that, we can begin to work with those left behind by our current strategies and maybe then the objective of a Smokefree Aotearoa has a better chance of becoming a reality.

Associate Professor Marewa Glover’s research addresses major public health threats for Māori: smoking, obesity and insufficient physical activity. Dr Glover has worked in Tobacco Control for more than 20 years across policy, health promotion and advocacy and research. She is an internationally recognised authority on electronic cigarettes and their use.

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