There are few pleasures to be had behind bars, but smoking has always been one of them – a fixture of prison life as ubiquitous as locked doors and bare walls. For New Zealand’s jailbirds, though, those days are numbered. On 1 July next year, a government decree comes into effect that will stub out smoking in prisons, forcing the estimated 5,700 smokers among the country’s 8,700 inmates to go cold turkey.
The move is the latest episode in a push to eradicate the deadly habit in New Zealand, where it has been banished from restaurants, bars and workplaces, leading to rates of adult smoking dropping from 30 per cent to 21 per cent in recent decades. Prison guards are the last sector expected to put up with second-hand smoke in the workplace, a situation seen as unacceptable by the government.
But the union representing the guards, the Corrections Association, wants the cigarettes to stay. About half of the prison service’s 3,500 staff are estimated to be smokers themselves. Moreover, argues association president Beven Hanlon, depriving their difficult charges of their daily fix will only lead to more violence directed at guards, who lost one of their own to a fatal prisoner assault in May. Their Australian counterparts warned that a Brisbane jail was burned down in 1997 when prisoners rioted over plans to take away their smokes.
Ben Youdan, director of the anti-smoking lobby group Action on Smoking and Health, believes the fears of violence are nothing more than scaremongering. Similar concerns were raised ahead of California’s move to ban smoking in jails in 2005, none of which eventuated. Despite the claims of politicking, he says the move is all about public health.
“The cost of tobacco to New Zealand is estimated at NZ$1.9bn [€1bn] a year,” he told Monocle. “If we even get 10 per cent of the prison population quitting smoking for life, the savings to the public health system will be considerable.”
With a year’s lead-in time before the ban comes into effect, there will be ample opportunity to encourage inmates to make use of free nicotine replacement therapies to assist the transition. Youdan believes there will be a good uptake of the services. “There’s an assumption out there that prisoners don’t want to quit smoking, but prisoners are as likely to want to quit as people oustside.”
Ultimately, however, drugs, weapons, and mobile phones are already prohibited in New Zealand’s prisons, and the rules do not stop such contraband from getting through. Nobody anticipates cigarettes to be any different. Both sides are resigned to the fact that prisoners will continue to light up, although the value of cigarettes in the prison economy is expected to soar beyond recognition.