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Issue #1561      22 August 2012

Editorial

Cold hard fact: Smoking kills

“Tobacco kills around 15,000 Australians a year – more than the combined death toll from road accidents, alcohol, illicit drugs, all homicide, HIV, diabetes and skin cancer. Tobacco smoking is the biggest single preventable cause of both cancer and heart disease – our two leading causes of early death; and is linked with the seven diseases causing most deaths.” Those are the cold hard facts about smoking in Australia from the website of anti-smoking organisation Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Australia. The public is well aware of the dangers of smoking and overwhelmingly supportive of measures to reduce it. It is also familiar with the tactics of tobacco companies to thwart government efforts to that end. The decision of the High Court to dismiss an appeal from big tobacco transnationals against federal plain cigarette packaging is a victory for public health policy and the demands of the people for a smoke-free future.

The appeal against the legislation was mounted by four companies led by British American Tobacco. They argued that it infringed their intellectual property rights to put their trademarks on cigarette packets and was unconstitutional. Of course, the public relations campaign they waged claimed that they were taking the step because there is no evidence that it would work; that it won’t prevent people taking up the habit. Companies made the same claim about television and other broadcast and print media advertising and sport sponsorship. The tobacco industry has a long-standing problem with the truth going back to the days when it denied the link between smoking and cancer.

British American Tobacco spokesman Scott McIntyre was disappointed with the High Court decision and threw in another “reason” why the government shouldn’t have taken the stand against cigarette advertising. “Although the (law) passed the constitutional test, it’s still a bad law that will only benefit organised crime groups which sell illegal tobacco on our streets ... The illegal cigarette black market will grow further when all packs look the same and are easier to copy,’’ he said.

The decision has been hailed internationally and welcomed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The UN body hopes it will set off a “domino effect” for similar legislation around the world. “Plain packaging is a highly effective way to counter industry’s ruthless marketing tactics,” WHO chief Margaret Chan said.

No doubt tobacco companies will respond with new, more subtle marketing ploys to boost their profits but the legislative cordon is tightening. State and territories are moving to ban smoking in more and more public places. Much remains to be done to get Australia to quit its smoking habit. That objective would be reached quicker if the last of ASH’s nine point plan could be achieved: “End organisational donations to political parties and candidates, cap individual donations and electoral expenditure by parties and candidates.”

The Liberal and National parties can be expected to fight that tooth and nail. The same day the High Court released its plain packaging judgement, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced that the high rollers’ room at Sydney’s casino will continue to allow smoking. James Packer had pleaded for the exemption. The decision shows that the fight to rid society of smoking addiction is far from over. Some further statistics from ASH underscore just how urgent this task is. Tobacco is also responsible for:

  • 56 percent of total drug abuse costs in Australia – more than alcohol and all other drugs combined;
  • Over $15 billion in workplace costs – twice as much as alcohol and all other drugs combined;
  • Over 750,000 hospital bed days – around 8 percent of them occupied by children under 15;
  • Over $600 million hospital costs.

By 2030, the World Health Organisation expects worldwide smoking-related deaths to top 8 million a year.

Next article – Wimmer rocks Perth

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