Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Managing the health of prisoners

New Zealand leads the way in banning smoking in prisons

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 18 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3923
  1. Ruth Bonita, independent public health practitioner1,
  2. Robert Beaglehole, emeritus professor1
  1. 1University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. r.bonita{at}

It is unfortunate that British prisons have no plans to become smoke free, as reported by Ginn in his excellent series on promoting health in prisons and referred to by Jackson.1 2 3 There was a sense of fatalism in Jackson’s remarks. Yet it need not be so.

On 1 July 2011, without incident, New Zealand became the first country in the world to completely ban smoking in prison. The ban included lighters and matches. The policy tackled health concerns of prisoners and staff, who had been subjected to much higher levels of second hand smoke than they would have been in any other job.

There are some interesting lessons for other countries when preparing similar legislation for smoke-free prisons. Firstly, the move was well planned, including a comprehensive 12 month lead in period.4

Secondly, the government commissioned an independent evaluation one year later to determine the policy’s success. The results included a reduction in the number of fires lit by prisoners and reduced tension between prisoners and staff. Staff reported improvements in working conditions and appreciating the benefits of the smoke-free environment, with many giving up or cutting down their own smoking. Other benefits were the reduction in smoking related illnesses and cleaner air in prisons.5 6

Finally, the evaluation showed that staff understood the purpose of the smoke-free policy and were committed to its success.7

The smoke-free policy in prisons didn’t occur in isolation but was part of a package of comprehensive plans by the government to move towards an essentially tobacco-free New Zealand by 2025, where less than 5% of the population would continue to smoke.8 A major plank in these reforms has been the systematic yearly increase in the price of tobacco.9 Even prisoners could appreciate the major savings that would accrue if they gave up smoking.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3923


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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