Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Lighting Up: the Social History of Smoking in New Zealand c.1920-1962

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posted on 2021-11-09, 00:27 authored by Johnston, Susie

The period 1920-1962 saw a significant increase in tobacco consumption in New Zealand. This period was one in which there was an expansion of the tobacco industry, tobacco consumers and smoking as a part of modern society. Smoking became an increasingly popular, prevalent and sociable habit, emerging as an integral part of twentieth-century life. Through this period smoking was uncontroversial and was often considered healthy. In 1962 London's Royal College of Physicians (RCP) released the findings of their report Smoking and health, culminating over a decade of health research. In 1964 the United States Surgeon General's report Smoking and health produced similar findings. The reports proved conclusive links between smoking and lung cancer as well as other negative health effects of the use of tobacco. Though the reports were clear, their reception by New Zealanders did not lead to an immediate reduction in smoking -  rates remained high until the mid-1970s and declined thereafter. By 1990 the rate of tobacco consumption per adult head of population had returned to 1920 levels. This thesis examines the rise in tobacco consumption from the 1920s to the release of the RCP's report in 1962. Prior to the inclusion of a smoking question in the New Zealand Census of Populations and Dwellings in 1976, no survey data was collected showing any systematic evidence as to who was smoking in New Zealand. The overall historical pattern discovered in this study fits within an international historiography while at the same time revealing some distinctive features of a pattern of consumption and local expression of smoking culture in New Zealand. This study draws on advertising, ephemera, photographs and other visual sources in order to describe the upward trend in tobacco consumption. The study reveals that industry and government efforts to develop and protect a domestic tobacco industry were major contributors to the rise in availability and affordability of smoking over this period, despite an ongoing negotiation over tobacco's status as a luxury or essential item. The commercial impetus of the tobacco industry, expressed through widespread and targeted advertising, was the major driver through this period, propelling the temporal, spatial and gendered expansion of smoking throughout New Zealand society. This study examines, in particular, the ways that advertisers promoted the many and varied promises or functions of smoking in the smoking spaces and activities of leisure, work and war. Alongside the rising prevalence and popularity of smoking, knowledge of the health or other risks around smoking were contradictory and limited and as such there was a marked absence of anti-smoking rhetoric through the period 1920-1962. Rather, prompted by the constant and pervasive images and messages in advertising, New Zealanders expressed their 'right' to smoke across time and space.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte