About 70,000 fewer adults smoke tobacco daily now than three years ago, the latest official survey has found.
The Health Ministry will today release smoking prevalence data, including the ethnic breakdown of the figures, from its latest New Zealand Health Survey, conducted last year and this year.
However, a preview snippet of the results, already published on the ministry's website, says the provisional data indicates that about 17 per cent of people aged 15 or older are daily smokers. That equates to about 600,000 people.
The prevalence was more than one-tenth lower than in 2009, when the ministry found that 19 per cent of adults smoked daily.
Tobacco control and public health advocates have hailed the reduction as a vindication of the Government's efforts to cut smoking.
"These data show that we've got momentum towards a smoke-free nation," said public health physician Dr Murray Laugesen.
Action on Smoking and Health director Ben Youdan said, "It's good news to see that it's going down. More people are quitting, the investment to get people to quit is working well and the tax increases are working."
The Government has set 2025 as its target for New Zealand to be "smoke-free", by which it means a minimal rate of smoking.
The ministry says deaths from smoking are the leading preventable cause of premature death. It is estimated that each year around 4500 people die from smoking-related causes.
The Government is in the middle of a programme of major increases in tobacco excise tax and in July forced retail displays of tobacco to be covered up. It is now considering public submissions on its proposal to follow Australia and impose plain packaging of cigarettes and loose tobacco, allowing virtually no branding.
Cancer Society national tobacco control adviser Skye Kimura said the reduction was "worth celebrating". But more drastic measures were needed, such as bigger excise rises and some form of licensing of tobacco retailers allied to controls on where tobacco could be sold.
Prevalence of daily tobacco smoking among people aged 15 or older:
23 per cent 2002/03
19 per cent 2006/07
17 per cent 2011/12
Source: New Zealand Health Surveys, Ministry of Health
Tobacco lobbyists are trading complaints over the Health Ministry's withholding of submissions on the proposal to force tobacco into plain packaging.
The ministry says it received 293 individual submissions, as well as opinions, from more than 20,000 people. A summary of submissions will be made public, but not until after the Cabinet has made a decision on plain packaging.
It is understood the Cabinet's decision is not expected until early next year.
Imperial Tobacco has objected to the ministry not giving a breakdown of the submissions.