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Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco

deirdre kent

As the face of anti-smoking lobby group ASH, Deirdre Kent helped drive through public health reforms that are taken for granted today. Now aged 80, the lifelong activist talks to Joanna Wane about the #MeToo movement, being vilified by the tobacco industry, and why the time is ripe for an economic revolution.

The great granddaughter of one of New Zealand’s first suffragettes, Deirdre Kent comes from a line of troublesome women.

In the 80s, she faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco, campaigning for a smokefree New Zealand. In the 90s, she was warning about the dangers of foetal alcohol syndrome when few people outside the medical profession even knew what that was.

Author of the 2005 book Healthy Money Healthy Planet, she co-founded the New Economics Movement, which prescribes a complete overhaul of the tax and money system, and is the secretary of Low Carbon Kāpiti, a community initiative calling for action on climate change.

A political gadfly, Kent was dubbed “woman overboard” during her time in Tauranga, where she spent a term as an independent on the city council and stood (unsuccessfully) for the Values Party on a nuclear-free platform and a  reform of abortion law.

Yet, for all those years of passionate advocacy, there’s one thing the 80-year-old admits she hasn’t quite got the hang of yet. “I’m hopeless at being a grandmother,” she confessed recently to one of her youngest granddaughters (she has 13 grandchildren altogether). “I’m always forgetting your birthdays.”

“What do you do then?” the little girl asked her.

“Well, I try to think about how to get a better political economy so the world is a lot fairer and the environment can be saved for the next generation,” she replied.

And then, says Kent, “She just looked at me and said, ‘You just keep on doing that then, thank you very much.’ It was lovely.”

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It’s one of life’s great ironies that Kent – whose relentless campaigning helped then-Minister of Health Helen Clark drive through the Smoke-free Environments Act in 1990 – shares her name with a brand of cigarettes. Her mother, a heavy smoker, died at 69 of a stroke, and Kent herself developed asthma after working in a Labour Department office dominated by smokers.

However, not everyone appreciated the zeal with which she pursued her cause. A tumultuous nine years as frontperson of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) came to an abrupt end in 1992 when Kent was sued for defamation by the chief executive of lobby group The Tobacco Institute for $250,000. The case was eventually settled out of court for a small sum. “I was scared silly,” she admits. “It was a very nasty period of my life, and a lot of people ran for cover.”

One who stood by her, unreservedly, was public health specialist Professor Robert Beaglehole, who founded ASH in the early 80s and is now back on board as chairman. “The industry was vicious, and activism comes at a cost,” he says. “In those days, ASH was a bit of a lone voice – and Deirdre was that voice. She was exposed and very vulnerable. It was all about getting attention and making the case for urgent action, and all credit to her. Appointing Deirdre was the best decision ASH ever made.”

Easily bored and in constant need of mental stimulation, Kent has twice fled the claustrophobic clutches of life in suburbia. A mother of four, she escaped Tauranga in the early 80s, leaving behind her GP husband John. He quit his job and followed her to Auckland, seeing her through those volatile years with ASH (his prescription for stress was a glass of brandy and a hot bath).

When they eventually retired to Christchurch, she stuck it out for a few years before decamping again, to immerse herself in the more politically charged environment of Wellington. This time, John stayed put, but Kent still speaks of him warmly as one of her greatest supporters. She later remarried, but was widowed in 2017, after 15 years together.

Daughter Susanna, who’s a GP in Petone, says her mother made choices that flew in the face of the social norms of the time: “Mum’s pretty fearless. She’s a big-picture thinker, that’s her strength. When it comes to the more mundane things in life, she’s not really that interested. I’m not sure what it is that drives her, but she’s in her element when she’s solving problems and thinking big.”

When North & South visited Kent, she’d moved to a retirement villa in Waikanae only days before, but her computer was already set up in one corner, ready for work on one of her latest projects: a new, expanded edition of her 2017 book, The Big Shift: Rethinking Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System.

In 1990, Kent made Sunday magazine's cover.

You turned 80 last year but you still have so much on the go. Don’t you ever wear yourself out?

No, I love it! I had to give a talk to a group once about my life and someone said they felt tired at the very thought of it. Coming into this retirement village, I thought, What the heck do I do? Start a savings pool? Maybe not. Start a meditation group? Possibly. Perhaps I’ll do something else altogether.

I’m writing a memoir, actually. It’s called Activist. The advice I’ve been given is to be very honest. And someone said you don’t do it for this generation but for the one after, because the next generation judges you. So I’m writing it for my granddaughters, the ones in their 20s.

Do you think being a woman meant you copped more abuse over the years, particularly during your time at ASH?

It did play a factor. I was vilified, Helen Clark was vilified, as are all women are who speak out on anything, to a large degree.

What do you make of the #MeToo movement?

It’s wonderful. Any movement like that, empowered by the engine of social media, is going to go fast these days. I’m really excited about it for women, for men, and for the potential of humanity.

I follow US politics very closely. Every time there’s a setback, like that Kavanaugh appointment [the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court judge, despite sexual assault allegations], there’s a huge wave of energy from those who are outraged. And I think there’ll be a big surge in women putting themselves up for politics. Historically, that’s what happens, according to Rachel Maddow [a political commentator on MSNBC].

How do you feel about the progress women have made in New Zealand after 125 years of suffrage and now with Jacinda Ardern as PM?

It’s very encouraging. Many people have said it, but a breastfeeding woman can head a nation and be fully active. I couldn’t have done it myself. My milk would have dried up! Helen Kelly [union leader and social activist] had a big influence, didn’t she? She was a fighter. So persistent, and she seemed to get more and more energy from the people she helped.

She never smoked but died of lung cancer, in 2016. You’d have to suspect passive smoking played a part in that.

I bet it did. As a child, she would have been smoked all over. You know, it was women who first got passive smoking on the agenda in the 80s, when it was early days to speak about the right to have clean air. Men were more interested in the science, the hard facts. But women pushed for the science on passive smoking, and it did come.

In 1990, your personal target for New Zealand being declared a smoke-free zone was the year 2000. That was a little optimistic, but the adult smoking rate has fallen to 14% – from around 33% when you began at ASH.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it? [The tobacco industry] is such a pariah now. It’s very unusual to find people smoking these days, even outside – although yesterday I passed a lot of vapers in Wellington city.

What do you think of vaping?

It’s strange and it’s weird, but to be honest, I don’t have an opinion about it. I have a nephew who sells vapes. He used to be a heavy smoker.

Any regrets about not making it into Parliament? You’d have shaken things up in the Beehive.

When I first moved to Wellington, what hit me most was the adversarial system of parliament. I used to go to question time and be so embarrassed. And it’s still going, decades later. But politics wouldn’t have suited me. I got on the council in Tauranga and found it so boring. Sorry!

Some of your economic ideas are pretty radical – what’s your philosophy in a nutshell?

I believe the earth belongs to everyone, and anyone who monopolises any particular part of the commons, which is widely defined, should pay a rent to the public. I also believe money is part of the commons and should be publicly created, certainly without interest. The current money system is unsustainable, which is why it has a collapse every now and again. It’s only by rethinking the money system that you get any social equity, but it’s a hard one. I think it can’t be done except at a local level, because the banks have too much power.

Do you think capitalism and the relentless pursuit of economic growth is a concept that’s fatally flawed?

I changed my views on this a little while ago. For the oil age, the way we created money was probably right for the purpose of developing an economy: making it bigger, making it more complex, etc, but it never got round to making it more equal. And we didn’t have climate change. Now, after the oil age, it’s damned dangerous and it’s desperate. For the past 20-30 years, it hasn’t worked and we’re coming to the crunch point now. That’s my next book. It’s about how we need to rethink the whole darned thing.

Have you lost faith in the ability of our political process to effect any real change?

The power of the corporates is so huge, and wealth is concentrated in so few, there’s no way change can happen at a central level. I think it’ll happen locally and it will happen suddenly. Hundreds of thousands of different communities will just take things into their own hands, like a movement that pulses for a long time quite slowly and then accelerates – like the Berlin Wall collapsing. Nobody ever thought it would happen that quickly.

Are we getting close to that tipping point now?

I don’t know. I’ve got a grandson who’s interested and doing an economics degree. He’s starting to think, which is good.

Revolutions are driven by the young.

Yes, but I think it will be multi-generational. I’ve no doubt there are some very wise older people around.

Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I vary between the two. I think the whole personal growth thing and raising people’s consciousness is the key. I’m very hopeful when I see what’s happening there: the knowledge of quantum physics and the way it’s applied to behaviour – and the extraordinary things that can happen once people understand the science of that. That’s where my hope is. There was something I saw on the NBC today where Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell were talking about kindness. Would you believe it?

You’re a big fan of personal development courses, aren’t you?

I’ve done so many, it exhausts me! In the 70s, I got into encounter groups. That was a disaster. Then psychodrama in the 80s. When I went to ASH, I was into goal-setting and was very earnest about it. Then someone introduced me to transcendental meditation, and I got into that for many years. I still meditate every day.

I take online courses now, that’s my most recent thing: evolutionary spirituality, feminine power, quantum something or other. The latest is Joe Dispenza, who talks about the science of personal change. He’s all over YouTube.

Your father was an Anglican minister – do you hold any spiritual beliefs?

Oh, yes. There’s no way I’d say I’m an atheist. It comes back to what Lloyd Geering says: the miracle is that a broken bone heals. The miracle of the human body, any life, any beauty. I’m greatly in awe of nature, and the loving intelligence and intelligent love that’s around us. I’ve been on singles sites and if someone says they’re an atheist, I’m not interested. I’m on one called Spiritual Singles at the moment and some of them are such intelligent people.

How’s your health?

I’ve got heart problems – who doesn’t at my age? A bit of asthma and hay fever. I’d like a new pair of feet. I go to a keep-fit class once a week and I walk every day. My GP daughter is a physical fitness fanatic and when I go to visit her [in Wellington] she makes me walk through the hills. My kids took me on an eight-day cruise for my 80th birthday and they wouldn’t let me take the lift; I had to use the stairs. One day, I walked up 20 storeys!

Stress used to really knock you about at the height of your crusades, but you’re quick to laugh now and seem a little less intense these days.

Absolutely, I’m much more even now. You have to ration the caring. You can’t care about everyone all the time; that’s what exhausts you.

Any regrets?

Oh yes, heaps. Heaps! I need friends to calm me down and hold me back. I know when to ring the sister who’s conservative [Kent is one of six daughters], and she’ll say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

There was that awful thing with Howard Morrison where I put out a statement without checking with people first [questioning whether Sir Howard, a smoker, had the right credentials to front an anti-drugs roadshow]. I ended up being interviewed by Paul Holmes, which wasn’t nice. That’s the downside to impulsiveness. But there are good things about being impulsive, too.

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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