Objective: To examine changes in the socio-economic and ethnic distribution of smoking in the New Zealand population from 1981 to 1996, and to consider the implication of these data for policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption.
Methods: Cross-sectional data were taken from 4.7 million respondents to the 1981 and 1996 New Zealand Censuses and 4,619 participants in a 1989 national survey, aged 15 to 79 years. Smoking prevalence rates were calculated by socio-economic position and ethnicity.
Results: Smoking prevalence fell in the period 1981-96 in every population group. However, socio-economic and ethnic differences in smoking increased in relative terms. Smoking prevalence ratios comparing the least advantaged with the most advantaged groups increased in men from 1.20 to 1.53 by income, 1.54 to 1.85 by education, and 1.49 to 1.67 by ethnicity. In women, prevalence ratios increased from 1.17 to 1.51 by income, 1.55 to 2.02 by education, and 1.85 to 2.20 by ethnicity. The greatest increase in socio-economic differences may have occurred during the 1980s, the period of greatest overall decline in total population smoking.
Conclusions: Socio-economic and ethnic disparities in New Zealanders' smoking patterns increased during the 1980s and '90s, a period of significant decline in overall smoking prevalence.
Implications: Public health programs aimed at reducing tobacco use should pay particular attention to disadvantaged, Indigenous and ethnic minority groups in order to avoid widening relative inequalities in smoking and smoking-related health outcomes.