The number of New Zealanders lighting up has dropped in the past year, according to new figures.

The results of 2009 Tobacco Use Survey, released by the Ministry of Health today, showed the smoking rate for New Zealanders aged between 15 and 64 years was 21.8 per cent, down from 23.9 per cent in 2008.

The 2009 youth smoking rate was also lower, at 18 per cent compared to 2008's figure of 20.8 per cent.

Health Ministry acting deputy director-general Ashley Bloomfield said the drop confirmed a downward trend in smoking.

"Each one percentage point drop in smoking represents about 30,000 fewer smokers. That's significant because on average half the people who smoke will die from a smoking-related illness," Dr Bloomfield said.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) director Ben Youdan welcomed the decline in numbers, but said pressure needed to be maintained to reduce smoking.

"This is the biggest drop in smoking rates for a decade. We are seeing that the impact of recent policies such as picture warnings on cigarettes and hard-hitting TV ads have been the kick start we needed to drive down the smoking rates in New Zealand," Mr Youdan said.

"A smokefree New Zealand by 2020 is in our sights and this could be the start of a landslide of New Zealanders rejecting tobacco. We hope Government seize this as an opportunity to build momentum with strong polices including tax increases on tobacco and banning retail displays."