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Cigarette ban would send smoking industry up in smoke

9 June 2012 2,989 views 2 Comments

IN their wisdom, the organisers of last week’s World No Tobacco Day decided to devote the main thrust of their message to the evil tobacco companies and their interference in the politics of people quitting smoking cigarettes.

The WNTD posters show a dark, malevolent man who looks like a badly dressed Mossad agent, defacing a No Smoking sign.

The word “Intimidation” is written big and red across the top of the page. Apart from the fact the message behind the image is not at all clear on first viewing, negative campaigns like this have in the past been shown not to work.

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Yes, I agree smoking is one of the biggest health issues we face and yes, I agree we should be doing as much as possible to encourage people to stop, but what irks me is the way the anti-smoking movement is becoming big business in itself. What would it do without smokers? And for that matter, how would Labor’s “surplus” fare without the dollars coughed up by smokers to the government?

It was recently pointed out to me by the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten that without morals campaigners and the taboos put on pornography by organised religion, the sex industry would be nowhere near the size it is today.

She claimed that without an organised prohibition movement constantly reminding people of the “forbidden fruit” syndrome, many people would lose interest.

Sex and organised religion, she argued, were like two sides of the same coin, feeding off each other.

Something similar seems to be developing around the politics of smoking and anti-smoking.

The anti-smoking lobby is now filled with career bureaucrats and more than a few wannabe politicians, so if we thought that single-issue politicians only come from poker-machine prohibition, think again.

Some people’s careers currently depend on how well they stage manage this faux “fight” against tobacco products, and politicians are staking their reputations on how tough on smoking they can seem to be.

But the reality is that neither side wants to be an absolute winner in this war because it means the end of the other. It’s the old MAD syndrome: mutually assured destruction.

And worse, without massive revenue from smokes, booze and gambling there would be a gaping hole in the budget.

When she was health minister, Nicola Roxon made such an issue out of cigarette packaging, as if her “reforms” were going to result in the end of smoking. She paraded herself as the champion of asthmatics and emphysema sufferers simply because she was going to change the look of cigarette packets. And posturing like an LA television lawyer, she threatened to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in the High Court, taking down those dark-suited tobacco thugs.

In the short term, it certainly hasn’t done her career any harm. As our current federal Attorney-General, she will still be involved in the huge High Court dramas of Regina vs Big Tobacco.

But will all this spin and power-play politics really cause people to give up smoking? Or does a more realistic ray of hope come from another area of public policy altogether?

The people at the coalface of addiction therapy and technology do most of the valuable work in helping people give up smoking.

A good case in point is the use of nicotine gums and patches to help people slide off their addictions more easily.

These technologies, developed in the free market, work. So do therapies as widely varied as acupuncture, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which encourage their members to have nothing in their blood but blood.

So why then do politicians, and especially our health bureaucrats, so regularly get in the way of self-help groups and new technologies, most recently the “e” or electronic cigarette? Banned in some states already, politicians and their apparatchiks have reacted to the moral panic of community do-gooder groups that claim these new products fall foul of the ‘lolly-laws”, which outlaw children’s confectionery that enticingly resemble cigarettes.

This is an erroneous view.

When these products are assembled to deliver the water vapour – or “smokeless smoke”, as the bureaucrats call it – the process looks about as glamorous as a diabetic preparing to deliver an insulin shot.

In November, Australia’s largest supplier of e-cigarettes, a New Zealand business called Elusion, reported that when the Australian government initially listed as a poison the sale of e-cigarettes with nicotine capsules, this move had no impact on sales to their 10,000 Australian customers.

In New Zealand, these products are available in the same areas as are actual cigarettes, but in Australia the federal Department of Health has just spent another five-figure sum hiring consultants to find more reasons to bring down harsher penalties for selling this useful anti-smoking technology.

Buoyed by framing smoking as part of an “evil culture”, our politicians are increasingly preoccupied with a “war” on cigarettes to such an extent they cannot see what is working and what is not.

Indeed, many of them seem to want to use the issue to score political points.

If Nicola Roxon wanted to be effective, why wouldn’t she have simply regulated the sale of tobacco products to “age-restricted” or “over-18” venues, instead of obsessing about packet designs and hugely expensive cases in the High Court? Take cigarettes out of mainstream retail outlets, Nicola, and then you’ll really see a dramatic decline in smoking rates.

In the same way that it is completely unrealistic to think Australia will ever have a zero unemployment level, we have to accept the fact that a certain percentage of the community will always want to smoke cigarettes.

At present, about 20 per cent of Australians still smoke, down from about 34 per cent in 1980.

That’s a 14 per cent decline over 30 years, and if we use the smart technologies and therapies that have become available and keep party politics out of the debate, we should be able to get that 20 per cent down to 5 per cent within the next decade.

If we do that, our unemployment and smoking rates could come close to matching each other by the middle of this century.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise.’

2 Comments »

  • Richard Laidlaw said:

    Smoking out hyperbole

    ROSS Fitzgerald brings a breath of fresh air to the anti-smoking campaign (“A ban on cigarettes would send anti-smoking industry up in smoke”, 9-10/6). It’s an argument that could apply equally across the spectrum of self-serving lobbying and influence-peddling that skews debate today on many policy matters.

    I would do anything I could to discourage a young person from starting to smoke (this topic generally comes up when I’m having a gasper myself) but tobacco companies are selling a legal product and should be allowed to do so freely. Of course, tobacco sales should be subject to reasonable regulation and taxed at penalty rates to discourage taking up the habit. Health warnings are sensible but it’s not clear why these should extend to depicting graphic images on cigarette packets when we’re so coy about other unpleasant aspects of life.

    Neither should regulation be used as an excuse to mandate hyperbole, and propaganda from do-gooders and bureaucrats, or further extension of the nanny state. As Fitzgerald notes, if it really wanted to, the government could outlaw tobacco and forgo all that lovely revenue.

    Richard Laidlaw, Busselton, WA

    LETTERS The Australian, June 12, 2012

  • Allan Welch said:

    ‘And posturing like an LA televison lawyer, she [Nicola Roxon] threatened to spend tens of milions of dollars of taxpayer’s money in the High Court taking down those dark-suited tobacco thugs…[A]bout 20 per cent of Australians still smoke, down from about 34 per cent in 1980. That’s a 14 per cent decline over 30 years…’. (Weekend Australian June 16-17 2012, p.16). The decline in smoking since 1980 is actually 41 per cent, not 14 per cent as claimed (any elementary statistics text will explain why). This is a significant decline; it exceeds a reduction of one third in smoking behaviour in 30 years. As a 12 year-old whose life trajectory was irrevocably changed by his father’s smoking-related death in 1957, this attempt to trivialise the endeavours of the Labor government in eradicating smoking are offensive. The Labor government is doing a magnificent job in taking on big tobacco and this carping from the sidelnes is decidedly unhelpful, particularly when it is supported by such a poor understandng of descriptive statistics.