At the World Taxpayers' Association Biennial Conference in Sydney recently, experts discussed global approaches to tobacco control and harm reduction. From this it is timely to ask whether our bureaucrats and government need a change of mindset.
According to both the Commonwealth Department of Health and anti-tobacco activists, Australia has an enviable record at reducing smoking. Based on what they write and has been said in testimony at Senate Estimates, some in response to my questioning, Australia is on the way to achieving what no other country has accomplished - elimination of the scourge of smoking.
It is true that Australia has implemented many policies to curb smoking. A phase out of cigarette advertising on radio and television began in 1973 and there has been a total ban on all tobacco advertising and promotion since 1989. There have also been massive increases in restrictions on tobacco retailers, particularly affecting point of sale, and in areas where smoking is not permitted, indoors and out.
All legal tobacco products are now imported, whereas tobacco growing was once a thriving industry, and efforts to stamp local production rival those aimed at curbing cannabis. Last year the government unveiled a multi-agency Tobacco Taskforceled by the Australian Border Force, with the brief to enforce the toughened laws and to "dismantle illicit tobacco supply chains".
In addition, the excise on tobacco has been ramped up to the point where Australia now has the most expensive cigarettes in the world, with almost three-quarters of the cost of a pack going to the government. To add some perspective, a 25-pack of Marlboro now costs an eye-watering $34.95. That's $12,757 per year for a pack-a-day smoker.
However, what the bureaucrats are most proud of is the fact that Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging. Since December 2012, cigarettes and cigars may only be sold in drab green packs with no brand identification apart from the printed name. Several other countries have since introduced the same policy, having believed Australia's claims of success.
The health campaigners have a problem though, which they are very reluctant to address: while the rate of smoking in most other developed countries continues to decline, since 2013 it has remained stuck in Australia at between 13 and 14 percent. The policies of which they are so proud are no longer working. Furthermore, there is now a multi-billion dollar black market in imported cigarettes, with illegal tobacco representing 15% of total consumption, the highest level on record.
They can't even answer which of their policies was effective at initially bringing down the rate of smoking. They will say they all contributed, leaving them with no response now that they appear to have all stopped working.
What's needed is an honest, objective assessment of each program, to determine what actually made a difference. But if the evaluation of plain packaging is any indication, that's not likely. The Victorian Cancer Council was commissioned to undertake a tracking study to explicitly test the efficacy of the policy. As it subsequently admitted, the study did not test the policy efficacy but rather smokers' perceptions of the cigarette packs. Unsurprisingly, smokers hated the new packets. Nonetheless, published results from that survey have been cited as evidence that the policy succeeded.
In fact there is no evidence that plain packaging has had any effect on rates of smoking. If it had made a difference, smoking rates would be falling faster in Australia than other countries. If the Health department was honest, it would be looking to those countries for answers, not purporting to have them all itself.
An obvious difference between Australia and countries like the UK, US or even New Zealand is the availability of less harmful sources of nicotine than tobacco, in particular e-cigarettes or heated tobacco vapes. While Australia has prohibited their sale (but not personal imports) and some states have even criminalised their use, in the UK they are recommended by the National Health Service to help smokers quit.
Our bureaucrats cling firmly to the view that e-cigarettes are just another trick by Big Tobacco, which has not yet been sufficiently punished for claiming half a century ago that smoking did not cause lung cancer. The fact that the tobacco companies have a substantially lower share of the vaping market than the tobacco market leaves them unmoved. Even the fact that Phillip Morris has committed to a "smoke-free" future and this year announced it would stop selling cigarettes altogether in New Zealand carries no weight.
If Australia is to resume its downward slide in tobacco consumption, it will require a change of attitude by the bureaucrats and anti-tobacco activists who determine policy and advise our politicians. Disapproval of smoking and antipathy towards tobacco companies is not a basis for sound public policy.
Perhaps the review of tobacco control legislation, as required by the Legislation Act 2003 which automatically 'sunsets' certain legislation unless it is renewed, will lead to such a change. Public consultation took place earlier this year and stakeholder discussions are ongoing. The review offers an opportunity for the government to finally admit that plain packaging is neither efficient nor effective at reducing smoking rates and should be repealed, and that alternatives with real potential to reduce health risks should be objectively considered.