Tokelau wins prestigious 2017 WHO Tobacco Free global award

By Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a F. Tauafiafi

Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes individuals or organizations in each of the six global regions for accomplishments in the area of tobacco control.
Tokelau health WHO award - 2017-ed For 2017, Tokelau was selected amongst six awardees for its whole of government “Tobacco Free Tokelau 2020” policy as a major contributor and inspiration to action ‘Tobacco Control’ measures. A bold effort that WHO recognize has far reaching impacts not only in the Pacific region, but globally as well.

Two of the measures enacted by Tokelau in terms of its tobacco control policy were the hosting of the inaugural national ‘NCD Summit’ in May this year; and passing of a 50 per cent increase in cigarette and tobacco duty from 195% to 295%.
It increased the cost of a packet of cigarettes to $9.50 which could lead to a reduction in cigarettes, but will also bring in extra revenue to government coffers of approximately $250,000 annually.

The award was received by Hon Siopili Perez, Minister of Health and Titular head, Ulu-o-Tokelau, during the 12th biennial meeting of Pacific Health Ministers’ in Rarotonga last week.

“The ‘Tobacco Free Tokelau 2020’ policy was developed through the uniquely Tokelauan consultative process called the coral-up approach. An approach where all of our people’s voices contributed to the development of the policy. It meant that all three Taupulega (Village Councils) endorsed the Policy before it was tabled in our General Fono (legislative assembly), which made parliament endorsement a straightforward matter.

“But the reality is, it is a tough challenge. But it is certainly one worth achieving as this will directly enhance the health and well-being of our people and I am, very much so, relying on our political commitment in Tokelau to ensure that this target is achieved within the timeframe.”

“So this policy is a working target for Tokelau, and this 2017 WHO award has just given us further impetus to strive and reach our target of a ‘Tobacco Free Tokelau’ by 2020.

For WHO representative looking after Polynesia, Dr Rasul Bagimarov, he admitted to being surprised when first told of Tokelau’s award.

There were two reasons he revealed to Pacific Guardians.

“It’s an extremely prestigious award so my first reaction was one of great happiness for Tokelau. But then on the other hand, since I had the opportunity in May this year to experience first-hand what is happening in Tokelau in terms of NCDs and tobacco smoking in particular, I was thinking that Tokelau still has a long way to go to be tobacco free by 2020.”

But being relatively new to the Pacific, having taken up the position earlier this year, it soon dawned on him after discussions with Samoa-based staff that the award was well merited. That a number of major milestones achieved were hidden to European eyes and perspectives.

“I came to realize that the actual hosting and holding of the NCD Summit highlighted a major commitment at the higher echelons of the country,” he said with new understanding. “That people making the laws, making policies had actually to come together and commit to addressing these issues is a major achievement. It meant that hosting their first NCD Summit really highlighted the urgency with which the Tokelau people and leadership are working to address NCDs like tobacco and cigarettes.

“And we learnt that immediately after the Summit that some people actually quit smoking – so there were outcomes – immediately.

“So having thought about this more, I see the award for Tokelau as recognition of the efforts thus far, and encouragement that they are on the right track and to keep on going.”

Hon Siopili Perez was accompanied to the Pacific Health Ministers meeting by Director of Health, Dr Silivia Tavite.


Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand. It is located in the Pacific Ocean north of Samoa and south of the Equator (9 00 S, 172 00 W). It is only accessible by boat, taking an estimated 28hours to reach the closest atoll, Fakaofo, a further three hours to Nukunonu, and another six hours to Atafu.

It is made up of the three small atolls named above, separated from each other by high seas. The total land area is approximately 12 km². The total sea area of the exclusive economic zone is approximately 518,000 km². The height above sea level is between 3-5 meters, the maximum width is 200 meters. Tokelau is therefore particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise.

The people of Tokelau are New Zealand citizens. Their relationship hailed by the United Nations as a model for other territories and administering countries to follow.

The population of 1499 (2016 census) is spread approximately equally among the three atolls (Atafu (541); Fakaofo (506) and Nukunonu (452). The traditional lifestyle was subsistence but Tokelau has moved to a cash economy. The only natural resource of any current economic significance is the fishery of the exclusive economic zone.

Tokelau has no main town; each island has its own administrative centre, hospital, school and basic infrastructure. There are no airstrips or harbours. Access is by ship only, through the Port of Apia, Samoa.

There are approximately 7000 Tokelauans living in New Zealand, and smaller communities live in Australia, American Samoa, Samoa, Rapa Nui, and Hawaii.