Published Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

From Sunday 28 November 2021, it is illegal to smoke or vape in cars with anyone under the age of 18.

For a group of Wellington rangatahi, known as The Hashtags, advocating for their community to get this law changed has been a primary focus for a number of years. The group have been supported by Regional Public Health, Health Promoters, Leah Clark and Sisi Tuala Le’afa, who mentor the group, which was formed in 2010.

“One of our first major projects was looking to get the law changed on smoking in cars with anyone under 18. In 2011, a University of Otago study found that frequency of people smoking in cars in Wainuiomata was 11 times higher than the average in the study. For us this reconfirmed what we already knew, this was a problem in our community, that mostly affected Māori and Pasifika people. We wanted to do something about it through a community response,” said Leah.

Wainuiomata Rugby League Club jumped on board at the time to support the campaign by becoming smokefree and banning smoking on their club grounds. “That was really important for us, because all the time we used to see parents smoking in their cars while picking up and dropping off their kids at league games and practise. What we see now is that kids from the club act as health champions and encourage their parents not to smoke,” said Leah.

From there, The Hashtags continued to promote and advocate for this law change by holding a range of community information and pop-up events, and even presenting to Select Committee at Parliament, in what The Hashtags describe as a ‘nerve-wracking’ experience. “The Select Committee asked us lots of questions, so we could tell they were engaged. We felt like they got the message we were sending,” said Ihaia Waenga, member of The Hashtags.

“Working with rangatahi, I’ve never underestimated them. Our Hashtags are the only youth group that have changed law – from little Wainuiomata. What can you say about that!” said Leah.

The Hashtags continue to meet on regular basis and discuss issues that affect youth and their community. The group is self-led and continue to be leading community voices on issues including child rights, suicide prevention, youth homelessness and period poverty. “What inspires me about The Hashtags as a group and as a concept is there are so many positive health outcomes that are tied up in this mahi. Not only do they influence positive change in our community through health reform and act as voice for youth, but at the same time they’re developing these amazing leadership and critical thinking skills. This helps to lay the foundation for them to go on to achieve academic success in tertiary education and then within their chosen career,” said Leah.

RPH media contact: Ben Hutchison – 027 583 3240

Picture: Founding members of The HashTags in 2012, at the start of their Smokefree cars campaign.

Picture: Current Hashtags team, along with mentor, Sisi Tuala Le’afa.