Pragmatic plan needed for smokers, not prohibition
ALTHOUGH I haven’t smoked a cigarette for decades, I know many people who still do.
These days, only about 16 per cent of Australians smoke cigarettes, which by any measure represents a great success. But that still leaves many more than three million Australian smokers.
Many are hard-core smokers who are addicted to nicotine. The likelihood that they will quit and stay cigarette-free is not at all high.
The health risks for them remain life-threatening and the burden they place on our already stretched hospital system is extreme. Also, as parents and grandparents, they are often regarded by the young as role models helping to make smoking seem a grown-up thing to do.
Most probably many of these hard-core smokers and nicotine addicts would be welcomed with open arms by the illegal drugs industry. This would mean not only a boost in sales for the drug-pushers but also something that could make smoking seem really cool and therefore attractive again to teenagers.
Worse, illegal cigarettes from drug-pushers could be a big step along the road to them pushing – to new customers – hard drugs such as heroin and ice. So making cigarettes illegal may do much more harm than good.
We could do nothing and simply live with the effects of a much-reduced number of cigarette smokers. After all, these smokers know that their smoking will result in lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease. A number of them are libertarians prepared to face the risks and who deliberately cock a snook at what they see as dictates from the “health Nazis”.
Sadly, such rule-breakers often make hero material for the young and naive. Indeed, that is one of the greatest long-term risks they present.
Vaping – using a vaporiser attached to a rechargeable battery – is another alternative. The evidence is that vaping reduces exposure to the carcinogens associated with cigarette smoking – most critically in terms of second-hand exposure of non-smokers to passive smoking.
So, while far from risk-free, vaping is a much safer way to feed a nicotine habit. It requires access to an e-liquid with a small dose of nicotine. Currently, this is legal in Britain and New Zealand, but illegal in Australia.
Paradoxically, because of the restrictions on the sale of cigarettes in Australia, we are well-placed to shift hard-core smokers from cigarettes to e-liquid vaping. Quite simply, this could be done by making the nicotine-laced e-liquid available alongside, and with the same restrictions, as cigarettes.
Then simply using price pressure – as we have so successfully done with cigarettes – the less expensive e-liquid for vaping may well see many of those three million or so hard-core smokers switching to the alternative nicotine delivery system.
Not an ideal solution, I agree. But neither are the alternatives of either banning all cigarettes or waiting for today’s smokers to die with our fingers crossed that they do so without attracting too many new recruits.
Tony Abbott’s ministers certainly understand the role of market forces and, in opposition, gave bipartisan support to using price pressure as a strong lever to reduce rates of smoking by making cigarettes ever more expensive to buy.
But, as the presence of a hard core of continuing smokers demonstrates, price pressure is ultimately faced by the law of diminishing returns.
Bearing this in mind, the federal government’s highly capable Minister for Health, Peter Dutton, and his industrious Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, would do well to consider whether a new and less-damaging product sold at a price that undercuts cigarettes could succeed in making real inroads towards making cigarette smoking a thing of the past.
Certainly, such a pragmatic approach to health problems was characteristic of Tony Abbott when he was John Howard’s minister for health and ageing.
Almost certainly, such a practical solution to reducing cigarette smoking will not be applauded by the chattering classes, who will gnash their teeth about giving way to the tobacco industry.
It will, however, be much appreciated by the families of suburban and regional Australia.
These families value the contribution of free enterprise and want to see family members who have been unable to quit have the opportunity to shift to a far less risky, yet in some ways less attractive, alternative.
Above all else, they value taking commonsense approaches to making Australia a healthier place to live.
In this, as in many other matters, the common sense of the mainstream should be given primary place for consideration by a competent government that places practical outcomes ahead of wordy rhetoric.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’, is now available as an e-book
The Weekend Australian, January 11-12, 2014, COMMENTARY, p 18.