Article Text

A gift and a burden: the purchase and distribution of duty-free tobacco and its potential impact upon Pacific people in New Zealand
  1. El-Shadan Tautolo1,
  2. Richard Edwards2,
  3. Heather Gifford3
  1. 1Centre for Pacific Health & Development, Pacific Islands Families Study, AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand
  2. 2School of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  3. 3Whakauae Research for Māori Health & Development, Whanganui, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr El-Shadan Tautolo, Centre for Pacific Health & Development Research, Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, AUT University, Private Bag 92006, Auckland 1020, New Zealand; dan.tautolo{at}


Background High smoking rates among Pacific people living within New Zealand (26.9%) are a significant and poorly understood problem. A proposed approach to tobacco control is to enhance restrictions on or ban duty-free sales, a pertinent notion for Pacific people given their frequent travel between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. This study examines the purchase and distribution of duty-free tobacco by Pacific people, whether it is being used as a strategy to circumvent the tobacco excise tax increases and how duty-free cigarette sales are perceived within the Pacific community.

Methods We undertook a qualitative research study using six focus groups with Pacific smokers and non-smokers aged between 18 and 54 years. Half of the focus groups consisted of smokers and half non-smokers. We used a thematic analysis approach to identify, explore and report key themes within the data.

Results Pacific smokers and non-smokers frequently purchase duty-free tobacco when travelling, and the usage of duty-free cigarettes for gift giving is a strongly embedded cultural value for Pacific peoples. However, nearly all participants strongly supported a proposal to reduce or ban duty-free tobacco sales.

Conclusions The findings suggest a ban on duty-free sales could be an important measure to help achieve the smokefree 2025 goal among Pacific communities in New Zealand. This measure would eliminate duty-free tobacco as a cheap form of supply, and efforts to denormalise the practice of gifting duty-free tobacco among Pacific people may also be helpful in reducing high prevalence rates within these communities.

Statistics from


Within New Zealand, approximately 5000 deaths each year are attributed to direct tobacco smoking or secondhand smoke.1 Subgroups within New Zealand, such as Pacific peoples and Māori and those with lower socioeconomic status, carry a greater burden of smoking-related illness.2 One in four Pacific adults smoke (26.9%), markedly higher than the general New Zealand European (18.6%) and Asian (11.2%) populations.3 The Pacific population is largely young,4 and there is a similarly high rate of regular smoking among Pacific youth (10.4%) compared with New Zealand European (5.1%) and Asian (1.9%).5 Moreover, available data suggest that smoking among Pacific Island populations in New Zealand has decreased little over the last 10–20 years.6–10

The New Zealand government has adopted the goal of achieving a smokefree nation by the year 2025. In relation to this goal, recent enacted (2010–2012) and proposed (2013–2016) tobacco duty increases have resulted in a greater focus on the issue of duty-free cigarettes.11 For example, submitters to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee argued that duty-free sales could increasingly undermine the impact of tobacco tax increases and recommended that duty-free tobacco sales should be severely curtailed or banned.12 Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia have introduced measures to greatly reduce duty-free allowances for tobacco products. Traditionally Pacific people have travelled frequently between New Zealand and Pacific Island countries, with evidence that this is occurring at higher levels than at any time in the past.13 As a result, the risk of duty-free tobacco sales undermining the impact of tobacco duty increases is particularly high among Pacific Island communities.

This qualitative research aimed to examine the purchase and distribution of duty-free tobacco by Pacific smokers and non-smokers, whether it is being used as a strategy to circumvent the impending cigarette tax increases and how duty-free tobacco sales are perceived within the Pacific community. The latter is important given evidence that smuggling or distribution of cigarettes is often viewed positively within disadvantaged communities.14



We undertook qualitative research using focus groups in late 2012 and early 2013. Participants were purposively recruited within two New Zealand cities (Auckland and Wellington) predominantly from among the three largest Pacific Islands ethnic groups in New Zealand (Samoan, Tongan and Cook Islands), with the highest prevalence of smoking8 and travel between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.13 Participants were recruited using several approaches including contact as a result of snowball sampling or recruitment following direct approaches using Pacific Island networks.

We held six focus groups with five participants in each, four in Auckland and two in Wellington. Three groups consisted of smokers only and the other three comprised non-smokers only. Limiting group size enabled interactions between participants to develop, while still allowing detailed probing of responses. All participants were offered $40 department store gift vouchers to recompense them for their time.

In total, the sample (N=30) comprised 17 women and 13 men (mean age 33.3 years) with an ethnic profile of Samoan (43%), Cook Islands Māori (37%), Tongan (17%) and Niuean (3%). Further information about the sample can be found in table 1.

Table 1

Focus group participant characteristics


Discussions for this study followed a semistructured focus group protocol formulated following review of existing literature, and consultation with key Pacific community groups, such as the Pacific Health & Welfare Network (PHW)—a collective of Pacific agencies and service providers involved in the areas of health, education and social services. The facilitator for each group was an experienced researcher with Samoan and Cook Islands ethnicity, which was a strategy to expedite greater engagement with Pacific participants and alleviate any potential language translation issues. Participants responded to questions encompassing issues such as the degree to which Pacific smokers/non-smokers consume or distribute duty-free tobacco, how wide the distribution network is and mechanisms for distribution, the attitudes of those purchasing, using, gifting and receiving duty-free tobacco, and whether duty-free tobacco is viewed positively or negatively within the Pacific community. The discussions took between 35 and 65 min, and, with participants’ permission, we recorded and subsequently transcribed each discussion. Participants also completed a short demographic survey with questions regarding age, sex, ethnicity, education and employment history, and smoking status (see table 1).

Data analysis

We used thematic and inductive techniques in data analysis, that is, categorising the data according to the key questions asked of participants and identifying new categories from the data itself.15 This approach is consistent with qualitative research where uncovering patterns, determining meanings, constructing conclusions and building theory are critical.16 All researchers independently undertook several close readings of the transcripts and proposed preliminary themes. These groupings were then reviewed and evaluated in an iterative process to identify, revise and test preliminary themes before agreement on final themes was reached between all three authors.


Findings from both smoker and non-smoker focus groups are combined in this section as most findings were very similar. However, attention is drawn to the smoking status of groups in areas where smokers or non-smokers differed in their views. Selected relevant quotations for themes are italicised. Results are organised by four key themes relating to purchase of duty-free tobacco, gifting of duty-free tobacco, perceptions of duty-free tobacco and views about increasing restrictions on or banning of duty-free tobacco.

Purchase of duty free

On average, most participants travelled between 1 and 6 journeys overseas per year. The main travel destination was the Pacific Islands or Australia. Almost all participants, including non-smokers, reported personally purchasing duty-free tobacco or cigarettes. The purchase of duty-free tobacco occurred both on departure and arrival. Some participants spoke about purchasing an amount of tobacco that was over the regulated limit of one carton, often by getting other people to buy for them or using others’ boarding passes to avoid quota restrictions.

Most non-smoker participants reported purchasing duty-free for friends, colleagues or relatives. Some participants also reported purchasing for strangers who approached them on the same flight or, if not travelling themselves, giving money to passengers to purchase duty-free tobacco to give to the participants’ family upon arrival.

Several non-smoking participants described a level of expectation among friends and family to purchase duty-free tobacco for them during their travels overseas:To me it is almost a must because I know that my friends and whānau (extended family) will be waiting for me, and they expect 2 things—cigarettes and alcohol (laughs)”. One smoker described travelling with a church group overseas, and even the Church Minister agreed to purchase duty-free tobacco for him (her?): “Recently we came back from Rarotonga, so my sister bought me a carton, I bought a carton, and the Minister offered to buy a carton for me too”.

Purchasing duty-free through others can sometimes be frequent, with one participant describing how her brother—a flight attendant—was able to purchase and supply duty-free regularly. I don't usually buy them myself but I have a brother who is a flight attendant so I usually get him to get them for me (laughs) and he usually gets them when he goes through Rarotonga…where it is like $15 or $20 per carton. So for example he usually leaves on Friday to go Rarotonga and he comes back on Tuesday. And so if I don't have enough then I usually buy 1 or 2 packets until he gets back. But if it gets to cartons nearly finished then I need to slow it down till he gets my next one (laughs).

A minority of non-smoking participants were reluctant or refused to purchase duty-free for others, and only did it if they were given the money upfront. One participant refused to buy tobacco for her husband as it encouraged him to smoke. Another reported they would give their quota to someone but not buy cigarettes themselves:I won't buy cigarettes but if I travel with someone who is smoking and they want to use my allocation then I'll let them use it if they're travelling with me. But if someone asks me who is not travelling with me to buy them for them, I won't, I won't buy them”.

Almost all of the participants who were smokers reported receiving duty-free tobacco from other people. However, despite the high frequency with which duty-free purchase was reported, most claimed their main source of tobacco was still the local shop, convenience store or petrol station as they did not travel often enough for duty free to be their primary source.

Gifting duty-free tobacco

The use of duty-free tobacco and cigarettes as ‘gifting or exchange’ was reported as very widespread by participants. Distribution of duty-free tobacco as a gift was particularly common among older smokers, and some participants spoke of using some of the duty-free tobacco for themselves, and the rest was gifted to family and friends: “Like one each for us and another for other people when we get there”.

One participant described how giving cigarettes made him feel valued as someone important, while others described gifting as a means of acquiring or maintaining status. It makes me feel like I am someone—Santa Claus—we are real ‘men’ (laughs). Sometimes if I go and I don't have money I have to wire my wife to send me money to get that stuff (duty-free tobacco) because that's how serious it is to me to have these things for other people.

Purchasing of cigarettes was not necessarily for someone in particular, but was in anticipation of future gift giving:If people haven't asked me I always buy it because it's a easy gift and simple for me to share out a packet for people”. Several participants described duty-free cigarettes as an easy and appropriate gift because they were “easily available, easy to carry, always welcome, long-lasting, don't need to think about it, can be a last minute purchase, and are relatively cheap if purchased duty free”.

A number of participants recognised gifts and reciprocity as important facets of building relationships or connections, and these values outweighed any recognition about the impact on health from the gifting of duty-free tobacco. We know that cigarettes and giving them out is no good for health but that reason is not seen in this instance. The positive is the greeting and the relationship. And for us and the people who get it, the practice builds up the connection between friends and family, more important than what it does to their bodies as smokers.

While the dominant theme in the focus groups was that smokers described gifting much of their duty-free tobacco, some younger smokers reported their duty-free tobacco was mainly for personal use: “Nah just for myself really”, or was sometimes sold to other smokers: “Nah I sometimes sell mine. Cos it costs me money so I sell it if they want it”.

Positive and negative perceptions of duty-free tobacco

There was an overwhelming positive perception that purchasing duty-free cigarettes especially in countries where the price of tobacco is significantly lower than in New Zealand or where purchasing restrictions are not enforced makes very good economic sense. For me I buy smokes duty-free because um..Rarotongan duty-free smokes are cheap. I do buy them for my son also and now my son's friends ask for smokes too (laughs). Cos recently when I went to Rarotonga I noticed that they are pretty relaxed with how many you buy from Duty-free. I've noticed some of the tourists buying cartons and cartons. They are about $15 a carton and that's how cheap it is. And the tobacco with the 5 packets in them is about $13. So I have been buying only when I come back to NZ because when I go to Rarotonga I buy things to take over but coming back I buy them especially for my son.

Duty-free tobacco was characterised as being very accessible especially in Pacific countries where boarding passes could be used in a number of outlets outside of the airport over an extended period of time:Back in Niue we have 3 days to use our boarding pass to go buy duty-free alcohol and tobacco on the islands”.

The main negative perception of duty-free tobacco, particularly related to its reduced cost, was the effect on health. Participants considered that duty-free cigarettes sales encouraged people to smoke “you end up smoking more because you have more” and purchase more because it was “so cheap”.

Some smoker participants expressed ambivalence about buying cigarettes for family members, particularly for sons and daughters. While their children were grateful for the gift, participants also saw that giving cigarettes was not a good thing for their health, and they wanted their children to quit: “I know it's a negative thing but the love and alofa (love) that you have for people and family and even my son who I sometime get it for takes over. But for me although I know its bad I look at my son and he has a job and looks after his family so I get it as a way to reward him for being good”.

One participant mentioned that the availability of duty-free tobacco was a trigger for re-initiation of smoking after quitting—merely because of availability I came across about seven people last year around Xmas, who actually started smoking again because the people from Tonga bought all these duty-free smokes when they came for holidays from December to January and there was so much abundance around them at the faikava1. They couldn't help themselves.

Reactions to restrictions or potential bans on duty-free tobacco

Despite their own participation in duty-free tobacco purchasing, most participants supported bans or increased restrictions on duty-free tobacco regardless of smoking status. Reasons for supporting bans or restrictions ranged from the personal “want to live to see grandchildren” to the more community focused “don't want to see children smoking” and “for the good of the next generation”. Most agreed that a ban on duty-free sales would remove a source of cheap cigarettes that essentially ‘feeds the habit’.

One non-smoker participant noted that removing the ability to purchase duty free would make a big difference in smoking behavior by removing the pressure to buy and making it easier to say no when family and friends requested they purchase cigarettes for them. Even restricting the duty-free allowance to a couple of packets could be effective, they indicated, as a gift really needed to be a whole carton, not just a packet or two. It would make a big difference if you actually couldn't buy tobacco at duty free. I think it would make a big difference and it wouldn't put you under the pressure to buy the gift if you don't have that option because then your family knows that you can't, but you can't bring it so as opposed to ‘oh why wouldn't you bring it when we've asked you to’. Yeah I think that would make a big difference just not having it as an option.

Another participant described supporting a ban on duty-free tobacco sales in order to reduce economic hardship:Yeah I support it because um people that can't afford it often buy them. Some people send texts asking for spare coins and you think it's for bread but it's No (laughs) so yeah it would be good just to remove another source to feed the habit”.

One smoking participant in support of a ban on duty-free sales deemed it necessary for the government to act quickly, “The government wants people to stop so sooner would be better”, while one non-smoker participant saw that change needed to occur gradually. I suppose like everything you should do it gradually I mean looking at where smoking cessation is today and where it started it has made a lot of big core steps. And so I'd like to see a ban but I am mindful that little islands like Niue and Cook Islands get a bit of money from the duty-free sales of tobacco which helps that little place in the world. But I am also mindful of the health and so I think that we need to let people know what's happening first and then introduce bans or restrictions on tobacco. So gradual steps and walk them through it are my preference.

By comparison, participants from a focus group of younger smokers in Auckland were very hostile and resistant towards any notion of an attempted restriction or ban of duty-free cigarettes sales “Uh uh no way”, and compared restrictions on tobacco with restrictions on alcohol: “I still think that alcohol is worse than smoking cos with smoking you get cancer but with alcohol the relationships get affected and family violence and a lot of other things but smoking is just cancer you know. Cos you don't crash the car from smoking but alcohol”.


A strength of this study is the rich data it provides about the role of duty-free tobacco sales among Pacific communities. The study may be beneficial in considering how future policy around tobacco control and duty free could be best communicated and implemented. Finally, among Pacific cultures there is a strong value placed on collectivity and working and discussing in groups. Hence, focus groups are a culturally appropriate approach in research with Pacific populations. A potential study weakness is the small sample and limited geographic sampling. This limits the generalisability of findings to other Pacific communities.

Most participants did not perceive duty-free tobacco to be a significant source of supply in Pacific communities. However, the frequency of travel between New Zealand and other Island nations in the Pacific region, and prevalent purchase and subsequent widespread distribution of duty-free tobacco through gifting suggests it is a potentially substantial source of cheap tobacco and cigarettes for Pacific smokers in New Zealand. Although specific figures for duty-free tobacco sales among Pacific people are not available, according to unofficial estimates travellers departing New Zealand airports avoided $55–$66 million in tobacco duties last year, possibly rising to $84 m in 2016.17 Tobacco is purchased by non-smokers as well as smokers, and among smokers is not only for the smokers’ own use but also for others, including extended family and social networks. Moreover, the findings suggest poorly enforced restrictions on duty-free importation may exacerbate the problem.

Alongside the obvious financial incentives, we found evidence of Pacific community norms and values that support high levels of acceptability and expectation for the purchase and gifting of duty-free tobacco, including in at least one instance the explicit approval of a church minister. This situation illustrates how ingrained within the community is the concept of purchasing duty-free for others. The tension between participants’ cultural context and wider social norms or behavior and concerns about health effects of tobacco smoking created a challenging paradox. For example, there was an evident tension for some participants between tobacco's desirability as a gift and the awareness that tobacco creates serious diseases among users. A plethora of literature alludes to the contextual meaning of traditional gift-giving among Pacific peoples. It is primarily depicted as a social obligation that helps foster relationships and fulfils cultural responsibilities to the collective.18–25 Thus, an inability to adhere to this custom can contribute to a sense of failure for individuals and seriously challenge and undermine one's sense of self-worth.26 This research revealed that this gifting culture is now often expressed by giving tobacco and cigarettes even among non-smokers, and that tobacco is seen as an appropriate and easy gift.

Non-smoker participants largely supported restrictions on or removal of duty-free tobacco, as did many smokers. Nearly all participants felt that the benefits of such an approach would far outweigh potential negative consequences. In contemplating restrictions or removal of duty-free tobacco sales, the intention should be to undermine the cultural norm of gifting tobacco, without disturbing the cultural importance and behaviour of gifting and reciprocity. Exploring alternative methods for facilitating these cultural relationships without using tobacco is essential. Similar research involving gifting of tobacco among Asian population groups suggests that denormalising the practice of gifting tobacco may assist in reducing the acceptability of smoking within these communities and help to reduce smoking prevalence.27 Past media campaigns in China are an example of efforts to change cultural norms around tobacco within these societies.28 Similar approaches may prove beneficial in changing cultural norms around gifting tobacco among Pacific communities.

Previous research linking the practice of gifting cigarettes with social expectations has suggested that policies that make cigarette packaging less attractive may also reduce their value or suitability as a gift.29 Printing large graphic health warnings and mandating plain packaging could eliminate cigarettes’ cachet in gifting. Interventions that help denormalise and deglamourise tobacco products may be complementary to restricting duty-free tobacco sales, thereby helping undermine the culture of giving tobacco as a gift.

In comparing the different group discussions, the younger focus group of smokers described purchasing tobacco for themselves rather than as gifts for others. This may suggest that the cultural norm of gifting duty-free tobacco is shifting for younger Pacific people, an issue that should be explored in further research. This young group of smokers from the Auckland region also strongly opposed proposed restrictions or bans on duty-free tobacco sales. Demographic information for this group indicates fewer participants engaged in full-time employment and a lower average weekly income, suggesting that financial benefits of duty-free sales may be a primary driver for their opposition to increasing restrictions on duty-free tobacco sales.

Removal of duty-free tobacco sales within New Zealand would be an important measure to help achieve the smokefree 2025 goal among Pacific communities. This measure would eliminate a cheap form of supply and contribute to denormalising the practice of gifting duty-free tobacco. This could assist in reducing high smoking prevalence within these communities.

What this paper adds

  • Our qualitative study found that Pacific smokers and non-smokers frequently purchase duty-free tobacco when travelling for personal consumption, but also as a form of gifting or cultural exchange. This practice enabled them to facilitate relationships and kinship connections, as well as fulfil obligations or expectations from family members. While most were aware of the harms associated with tobacco and smoking, these cultural and social obligations somewhat enabled participants to absolve themselves from responsibility, maintain their identity and social status within a group, and rationalise the regret they subsequently experienced. Nearly all participants strongly supported a proposal to reduce or ban the purchase of duty-free tobacco when travelling, a measure that would remove the temptation and ability to purchase tobacco, and eliminate duty-free tobacco as a form of supply for Pacific communities. Although this finding requires wider testing, it represents a straightforward policy response to contribute towards reducing Pacific smoking rates and achieving the New Zealand government stated goal of a Smokefree Aotearoa by the year 2025.


We are grateful to the participants who agreed to be interviewed and whose detailed responses provided the basis of this article. We also acknowledge the Heart Foundation and Tala Pasifika for their support with recruitment for the research.


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  • 1 Faikava = Tongan term for kava club or kava circle—place where Tongan men go to socialise and drink kava with other men.

  • Contributors E-ST, RE and HG designed the research, and E-ST undertook the data collection. E-ST, RE and HG analysed the data and developed the manuscript, with E-ST taking the lead role on both of these aspects of the research.

  • Funding This research was funded by the Tobacco Control Research Tūranga, which is supported through funding from the Reducing Tobacco-related Harm Research Partnership cofunded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Ministry of Health of New Zealand (HRC grant 11/818).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

  • Ethics approval The AUT University Ethical Committee (AUTEC) reviewed ethical issues for this research study and protocol and approved the research project.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Access to any unpublished data requires permission of the authors.

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