Smokefree 2025: Chemical found in kowhai trees could help people quit smoking - researchers

Researchers have found a chemical found in many native plants is helping people quit smoking. 

Cytisine, found in kowhai trees, is used in cessation treatment in European countries and smoke-free advocates are calling for it to be approved in New Zealand. 

New Zealand has a target to be smoke-free by 2025, and Dr Natalie Walker from the University of Auckland says a powerful aid to hit that goal could lie in the humble kowhai tree.

"If you have more tools in your toolbox it's easier," she says.

Dr Walker says the chemical cytisine is more effective than nicotine replacement products like patches. It could also particularly help Māori who have higher smoking rates and higher rates of tobacco-related deaths than non-Māori. 

"The alkaloid is found in a lot of native plants in New Zealand, so for Māori, there's a connection to that medication because of that," Dr Walker says.

Māori already use kowhai in traditional rongoā medicine to treat colds and sore throats, cuts, bruises, swellings, and skin diseases.

Dr Walker's research found 12 percent of people who took cytisine pills weren't smoking six months later. This is compared to the 8 percent who took the Government-funded medicine Varenicline, branded as Champix.

And there are fewer side effects.

Smokefree 2025: Chemical found in kowhai trees could help people quit smoking - researchers
Photo credit: Getty Images

"Often people will stop taking medication because it makes them feel unwell but we know that with this medicine it'll be less of those side effects," Dr Walker says.

But she warns that simply consuming parts of kowhai won't do the trick. 

"It's potentially harmful if you do that, so it can only be used when it's in this medical form."

Cytisine isn't approved in New Zealand but is commonly used in parts of Europe.

Now, smoke-free advocates are calling for the drug to be added to the New Zealand arsenal to reach our own smoke-free goal. 

"To reach Smokefree 2025, we need 260,000 fewer smokers and 120,000 of them need to be Māori," says Deborah Hart, director of Action for Smokefree 2025.

The Government says it's still committed to the smoke-free goal and will be releasing a discussion document on its proposed plan in the coming weeks. Smoke-free advocates are hoping that plan includes cytisine.