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Smoking ban should extend to marae

Hon John Tamihere: Smoking ban should extend to marae

In the last year, just over 400 people died on our roads and we justifiably see that as a tragedy.

But every year another, even more lethal, tragedy takes a toll of 450 Maori lives, and we need to be just as outraged about that as we are about road deaths, and just as active in doing something to stop the carnage.

That's why I suggest extending proposed smoke-free legislation to ban smoking not only bars and restaurants, but marae too.

I say that because Maori smoking rates are much worse than the rates among any other ethnic group, and as a result we are dying of smoking-related illness in much greater numbers.

The statistics on Maori smoking are horrifying. The figures substantiate what I see out in the predominantly Maori communities in my electorate: a smoking epidemic among Maori.

Maori are twice as likely as non-Maori to smoke. In 1996, 44 per cent of Maori aged 15 and over regularly smoked, compared to 21 per cent of non-Maori.

Smoking rates are highest among Maori women - 47 per cent of Maori women smoke. Rates are also higher among Maori aged 20-39, and 55 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men in this age group are smokers.

The toll this takes on our health is horrendous. Smoking contributes to an estimated one-third of all Maori deaths, with most common smoking-related deaths wrought by heart attacks, strokes, cancer and respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis.

The rate of lung cancer deaths among Maori women is a staggering four times higher than that among non-Maori women, while the rate of smoking-related deaths among Maori men is three times higher than that among non-Maori men.

And deaths caused by smoking are happening not just among the older generation, but among our babies, too. About half of all sudden infant death syndrome (Sids) deaths are attributed to parents smoking. In 1996, the Maori Sids rate was five times higher than the rate for non-Maori babies.

While Maori smoking rates are decreasing along with a decline in smoking in the overall population, they still remain disproportionately high.

And they remain high despite anti-smoking programmes aimed specifically at Maori, such as the Health Ministry campaign Why Start?/Hei aha te kai paipa? and marae-based smoking cessation programmes, as well as anti-smoking strategies aimed at the general population, including smokefree legislation, a national telephone quitline, and smokefree sponsorship of sports and cultural events.

When we are killing ourselves and our children, it is time for more drastic action.

I congratulate the majority of marae who have already voluntarily declared themselves smoke-free, but we need to go further in taking responsibility for the problem.

Some people may say that telling Maori to take responsibility for their own appalling smoking rates is blaming the victim, and I accept that smoking is a symptom of a wider malaise and deeper problems among our communties.

But there are some simple facts that are not any less true because some people don't want to hear them. If Maori want to stop dying prematurely and suffering from serious ill-health, they should eat better, exercise more and stop smoking. Simple.

The fact that some people will be outraged that I say that shows how much attitudes need to change. Maori have a massive problem with smoking, and need to accept that we have to get very serious about addressing that problem. Supporting a ban on smoking on marae by law would send a very clear message that we are deadly serious about dealing with a deadly issue.

Marae are the last bastions of absolute control for Maori people, but if it is good enough for us to tell old soldiers who got a cigarette ration in World War II that they can't smoke in the RSA; good enough to tell kids they can't smoke behind the bike sheds at school, and good enough to tell wealthy diners in fancy restaurants that they can't light up a cigar with their after-dinner cognac, than it is good enough to tell the people who are dying from smoking in greater numbers than any other ethnic group that they can't light up down at the marae.

If anyone has a problem with that then I would have to ask them why they would endorse the killing of our own people. Quite apart from the tragic loss and heartache to the friends and whanau of each of those 450 Maori who die of smoking every year, we cannot collectively afford that monumental loss to us as a race.

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