Kicking the habit

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The Howard government has until now distained tobacco control. Despite Michael Wooldridge’s valiant efforts to give it profile, the Prime Minister declared on Adelaide radio in July 1999 ‘the only way you could further reduce smoking in this country is probably by making it illegal.’

He was very wrong. In 1998, 21.8 per cent of Australian aged 14 and over smoked every day. In 2004, this had fallen to 17.4 per cent a 20 per cent fall in seven years. In fact smoking has been falling almost every year since the early 1960s, when just shy of 60 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women smoked. If we keep up the recent rate of decline, smoking will disappear in about twenty eight years, after perhaps a final endgame decade of being a totally marginalized behaviour that people will stare at in disbelief.

The Costello budget signaled a major shirt in government policy by including $25 million over four years for an anti-smoking campaign. $6.25 million a year will buy a modest campaign that will, on past form, punch well above its weight. It will grease the rails for the brakeless train of declining smoking, accelerating the decline. But let’s not forget that the government receives around $5.4 billion a year in tobacco excise, including over $100 million from sales to the children it says it will target in this campaign. Its new campaign is the equivalent of one tenth of one percent of the money it pulls in from smokers. Cynics will see this as derisory. Others will hope it will be the first step in the government reclaiming Australia’s reputation as the world’s best example of reducing deaths from smoking. (In 1993, Philip Morris’ Australian chief wrote to his head office ‘Australia is a template for anti-smoking groups in other countries. Our goal is … to destroy that template.’)

Smoking Cessation for Youth Project

Smoking Cessation for Youth Project

The recent declines in smoking have been driven by a combination of factors, some of which the Federal Government can take credit for. After lobbying from health groups, Costello changed the way tobacco was taxed, with the move from a weight-based regime to a stick-based tax driving the price up, and consumption down (an internal Australian industry document says ‘the most certain way to reduce consumption is through price’). It has deregulated nicotine replacement therapy, allowing massive direct-to-consumer anti-smoking messages in the form of advertising. And it has supported the introduction of in-your-face pictorial pack warnings that will unsettle smokers’ denials from next year. But in the last five years it has been the states which have done most of the campaigning.

The new federal commitment is very welcome, but it comes with a worrying package: it targets youth smoking. For fifteen years I have edited the world’s highest ranking research journal publishing tobacco control. The global research community has known for years that almost all overtly ‘youth oriented’ campaigns fail. These efforts typically feature wholesome youths earnestly proclaiming they choose not to smoke, or elite athletes bowling us over with the amazing news that they don’t smoke. These messages are wringing wet with subtexts that ‘this is a memo from your parents’ and are a complete turn-off to any self-respecting youth. Most telling of all, both British American Tobacco and Philip Morris invest heavily in such campaigns, knowing full well that they do nothing to impact on youth sales.

What drives youth smoking down most is adult-oriented quit messages, restrictions on where you can smoke, high prices and the overall changing cultural tide against smoking. If you smoke to look adult, and begin to realize that fewer and fewer adults smoke, smoking fast becomes a badge of adolescence: the equivalent of saying you’re into Avril Lavigne.

The new commitment is good news and will save many lives, but health groups must do an Oliver Twist and ask for more. The government puts half a billion into illicit drug control which kills a small fraction of those claimed by tobacco.

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