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Pub smoking in Australia: 20 years of fiddling and burning Part 1

By Simon Chapman - posted Monday, 21 February 2005


Any antique dealer will tell you that spittoons are very hard to move. After public health officials got tough on spitting in pubs early last century, unwanted table spittoons flooded the market. And now thanks largely to the resolve of NSW Minister for Cancer Frank Sartor, the noble pub ashtray is set to go the same way. A century after the association between public spitting and tuberculosis saw boy scouts dispatched to chalk pavements with “no spitting” and every bus, tram and butcher shop required to carry notices about fines for expectoration, smoking is inexorably becoming a private activity.

Historians haven’t yet produced the definitive history of the anti-spitting movement. Perhaps libertarians wrote frothing letters to newspapers about spitters’ rights. Maybe publicans petitioned politicians about how they would refuse to tell a man after a hard day ‘ut mill that he couldn’t spit on the floor. But unlike today’s sentinels of public smoking, there was no phlegm industry standing in the shadows behind lickspittle hoteliers and restaurateurs, encouraging them to hold the line. You can’t tax spitting, so governments were happy enough to see it off as an issue which had had its day.

The rot set in for public smoking in the early 1970s when evidence emerged that babies whose parents smoked indoors had a greatly increased incidence of respiratory problems. Some died. As if killing babies wasn’t enough, over the next 30 years, the bad hair day for passive smoking turned into decades. In 1981, the first study appeared showing that if you didn’t smoke and lived with a smoker, you stood a significantly increased chance of getting lung cancer, an uncommon disease in non-smokers. Dozens of similar studies followed, with the evidence spreading to include stroke, heart disease, cot death and asthma.

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The global tobacco industry was quick to see a train wreck of implications in all this. Smoking was rapidly moving from being a personal health issue to a very public one where others’ actions - for all the protests about their rights - could harm you. From the mid 1980s the industry began to spend vast sums of money to bury the issue. In 1995, Philip Morris’ global budget for regulatory affairs - mainly to attack restrictions on smoking - was $US 91,476,000, much spent on a gravy train of hired scientists who were “prepared to do the kinds of things they were recruited to do”, as one internal industry memo (pdf 826KB) put it.

To understand the ferocity of the tobacco industry’s resistance, it helps to understand what is at stake for them. When workers can’t smoke indoors, they step outside to feed their brain’s hungry nicotine receptors in a cheerless ritual that is the daily visible antithesis of every promise ever made in a cigarette ad. Like those on show in the bleak smoking rooms at airports, it is distinctly not a good look. And all-weather smokers outside buildings never make up the cigarettes they would otherwise consume. As far back as 1979, the US Tobacco Institute predicted that if smoking restrictions caused every smoker to light just one less cigarette a day, 18 billion fewer cigarettes a year would be consumed at a cost to the US industry of $US 500 million (pdf file 476KB). That forecast turned out to be hugely conservative. Over 25 studies have shown that across 24 hours, smokefree workplaces reduce smokers’ daily consumption by an average of 21 per cent, and that workplace bans stimulate quitting.

As the media carried news of more and more studies, governments and employers soon started responding to the resulting public annoyance at being forced to smoke and to a string of workers’ compensation cases. Smoking indoors was banned in the federal public service in 1987 by the late Dr Peter Wilenski. You haven’t been able to smoke on a Qantas plane since 1996. Today, even tobacco companies (pdf file 48KB) and their legal firms don’t allow smoking indoors.

Smokefree dining once signaled drab mung bean and tofu asceticism. In the early 1990s health groups took a dozen of Sydney’s leading food writers to lunch at the smokefree Tetsuya’s to try and turn that perception around. Leo Schofield, David Dale and John Newton pioneered the routine highlighting of smoking status in their restaurant reviews. The ACT government made restaurants smokeless in 1995 and in November 1999, NSW Premier Bob Carr announced that all restaurants from the humblest kebab shop to the most gastronomic palaces would be smokefree from six weeks before the 2000 Olympics. The dominoes then tumbled in every state (pdf file 14KB), including the Northern Territory where ever since, top enders have eaten their barra and chips without the smoke, with no reports of the world having ended.

But somehow in all this, pubs and club bars were said to be different. Romanticised as the last bastions of smoking, their representatives stood their ground, brandishing a heady mix of economic snake oil and dewy-eyed talk about returned soldiers who’d fought for the right to smoke, drink and eat a pie. Studies of the greatly elevated blood nicotine levels of bar staff came and went, as did stratospheric measures of toxic tobacco smoke particles in pub air. All namby-pamby nonsense to pub industry officials. Reports of the improved respiratory health of Californian bar staff after that state banned smoking in bars in 1998 changed nothing. When non-smoking Port Kembla bar worker Marlene Sharp (pdf file 77KB) was awarded $466,000 in damages for her throat cancer in 2001, predictions of rising workers’ compensation insurance premiums failed to materialise.

In 1997 the NSW government was handed a graded set of options for banning smoking throughout the hospitality industry, starting with a do nothing option. It did nothing. It later resurrected the immortal “magic line” system of controlling smoke in pubs once favoured on planes. Currently you can’t smoke “at” a bar, so smoking within 2 metres of a bar is deemed harmful to bar staff. But at 2.01 metres they can breath easy. Anyone with an IQ a point higher than it takes to grunt understood that something was very wrong here.

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While all other workers breathed smokefree air, the group most exposed and at risk of disease were the last to be protected and told it was their duty to risk their health as a sort of patriotic duty to the economy. The club and hotel industries fed governments, and often unblinking media, a diet of empty bars and cataclysmic job loses if smoking were to go. That non-smokers outnumber smokers by four to one (pdf file 139KB) and that many might go to pubs more if they could come away without a dry cleaning bill and stinging eyes meant nothing to the leading lights in the pub trade. Bar workers are a highly casual and largely non-unionised, powerless workforce. Being predominantly young, many smoke themselves. They didn’t have to work there, ran the unvoiced neo-Dickensian subtext.

Enter Frank Sartor. Few politicians get thrown in the deep end of politics and given a ministry and seat in cabinet on their first week in parliament. Sartor broke the mould and was entrusted to pursue a personal crusade he had long been lobbying the Carr government to fund: a ministry unique in the world that would be dedicated to doing all that was possible to reduce the burden of cancer in the community. Like so many, the former Sydney Olympics Lord Mayor has deeply personal experience with cancer. His mother had died of melanoma when he was 16 and his partner, former ballerina Hephzibah Tintner, died of throat cancer aged just 30.

Everyone who meets Sartor or receives one of his expletive deleted 50 minute late evening phone monologues knows immediately that he is personally driven. He seems to know this himself, quoting the late Christopher Reeve in his maiden speech to parliament, “I often wonder why it takes a direct emotional connection for our elected officials and prominent members of society before they are willing to help us".

Sartor takes to a brief like a hungry dog cleans a bone. Any question elicits a Niagara of statistics, which are invariably correct. His has rapidly acquired a reputation among health professionals as being among the most informed politicians to have dealt with health issues. Famously described as “an acquired taste” he can be impatient, irritable, stubborn, and makes enemies. But if you want someone on your side, he is a peerless operator.

Sartor quickly assessed that interstate unity would be critical in securing the pub endgame and visited the Victorian health minister in Victoria and the health minister’s advisors in Queensland to seed the idea. He found strong allies in Victoria’s Health Minister Bronwyn Pike and Queensland’s Gordon Nuttall. For some time Carr and others had been saying a total ban was inevitable and this begged the question of who would be first to step up to the plate. As had happened with the restaurant ban, none of the three Eastern states liked the idea that they should be seen to be left in the wake of the others, but each were also edgy about being targeted by a club and pub campaign if they went alone.

In June last year Sartor joined Bob Carr, Peter Beattie, Mike Rann, Steve Bracks and federal minister Ian Macfarlane on a trip to the US. The agenda was all about how Australia could build biotech capacity that would be internationally competitive. Sartor used the opportunity to successfully get in the ears of the Queensland and Victorian state premiers and stitch up an agreement where the three Eastern states would wait till after the Federal election and then name a date for a pub smoking ban. In perhaps the most telling sign of how popular the issue had become, on September 6 Peter Beattie gazumped an irritated NSW and Victoria by announcing Queensland bars would be smokefree from July 2006, 12 months ahead of NSW and Victoria.

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This is Part 1 in a 2 part series. Part 2 can be found here.



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About the Author

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and author of Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control.

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