Northland retailers are leading the country as increasing numbers pull tobacco products from their shelves.

So far 18 Northland dairies, service stations and superettes have officially gone tobacco-free, just under half the national total of 40.

The latest to be recognised by the Cancer Society for their stance are Titoki Store, west of Whangarei, and Kaeo Farm and Fuel. Rawene Service Station was acknowledged last month.

Kaeo Farm and Fuel owner John Owens said as ex-smokers, he and his wife were never comfortable selling tobacco - but they also had to face the reality of running a business.

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Over the past five years, however, so many regular customers had quit smoking that the only buyers were passing motorists.

The drop in sales, combined with ever-increasing compliance, low margins and the pressure of having to be on guard against under-age buyers, prompted them to go tobacco-free in April.

A few customers had been shocked they did not stock cigarettes but positive comments far outweighed the negative, he said.

Titoki Store owner John Laird said he also had sound business reasons for not selling cigarettes.

Stocking tobacco involved a big outlay because it had to be paid for up-front, which was hard for small retailers, and profit margins were low.

"We were spending $8000 to $10,000 per week and not getting any return. We've already noticed the difference," he said.

Titoki Store owner John Laird and his granddaughter Caitlin Hunter, who have made the call to stop selling tobacco products. PHOTO / SUPPLIED
Titoki Store owner John Laird and his granddaughter Caitlin Hunter, who have made the call to stop selling tobacco products. PHOTO / SUPPLIED

Cancer Society Northland health promoter Jim Callaghan said the society had started the recognition scheme to let retailers know their stand was appreciated and had been noticed.

He was unsure why Northland was so far ahead of the rest of the country but suspected it was because publicity around the society's initiative to recognise tobacco-free retailers, which had started in the North, had inspired other shop owners to follow suit.

Retailers in rural areas were also more closely connected to their communities, he said.

Northland's smoking rate has fallen from 25.7 per cent in 2006 to 19.1 per cent in 2013, according to Census data.

However, that is still the fifth highest rate in the country.

-See www.smokefreeshops.co.nz for a list of tobacco-free retailers.