11 November, 2011

Time to Call the Quit Line – For Good

I support any effort to reduce smoking, but I have to say that the latest law to regulate how cigarettes are packaged makes me uncomfortable. In fact, it brings out a libertarian streak in me. I think that restrictions on the display of cigarettes and the warnings on the packets are already as strict as they can reasonably be.

For five years now, explicit pictures and warnings have taken up the majority of space on a cigarette packet. Now, those packets cannot even be displayed at the point of sale – you’re left to wonder what they’re hiding behind those little roll-a-doors. Yet, there are people who still buy cigarettes. If the pictures of cancer on the packet still haven’t deterred them, I honestly don’t see how making the picture bigger is going to change anything. If you asked someone who bought a packet of cigarettes today, why they didn’t heed the myriad warnings about how dangerous it is, I doubt they would reply, “The picture wasn’t big enough.” I also don’t see how forcing cigarette manufacturers to sell their product in generic, dull coloured boxes will do anything other than create a counter-culture fashion for other generic, dull coloured things. After decades of information and education, anyone who buys cigarettes in this day and age knows exactly what they are doing and what they are getting. In the 90s, there was a brand of cigarettes called Death. Their gimmick was truth in marketing. They clearly proclaimed that their product, if used as intended, would kill you. People still smoked.

Anti-smoking campaigns have been very successful. Smokers have gone from being the cool people, to being the naughty people, to being almost outcasts. The success has not just been in Australia. Perhaps one measure of how far we’ve come is that fact that during the US presidential campaign in 2008, Republicans tried to counter Barack Obama’s popularity by revealing that he was (gasp!) a secret smoker!

Smokers are a minority and it’s an ever-dwindling minority, thanks in no small part to regulations that make it harder and harder to promote smoking. For all that, I think it’s a dangerous precedent to allow government to ban a legal product from identifying itself, or at least distinguishing itself from the competition. It’s been said that if this new proposal prevents just one person from smoking, then it will have been worthwhile. I can see that point, but I don’t think it’s government’s job to save the last few stragglers from themselves. I think this new proposal goes too far.

And yet, I think it doesn’t go far enough.

Ever since the television advertising of cigarettes was banned in 1976, successive governments have been gradually banning everything to do with cigarettes… except cigarettes. It’s time to stop faffing about and go all the way.

I am not talking about outlawing tobacco tomorrow. That would be unworkable and cruel to many remaining addicts. Ozzy Osbourne has said that nicotine is the hardest addiction to break and Lord knows, there speaks a man who ought to know.

What I am suggesting is that we set a deadline for a phased withdrawal, just like with leaded petrol, analogue television and incandescent light globes. Announce that from 1st January, 2020, the production, sale and consumption of tobacco products will be banned, so start making your plans now! These may be lifestyle plans for smokers, business plans for retailers and producers (and indeed, anyone in the business of helping people to quit smoking - after all, they rely on smoking for their business too), and economic plans for governments that still have a nice little earner from tobacco excise. That should give everyone fair warning. The minimum age at which it’s legal to buy cigarettes is 18. Raise that age by one year every year. This way people who started smoking legally are not turned into outlaws overnight, but by the time the full ban comes into force, no-one under 26 should ever have smoked legally anyway.

As with leaded petrol, by the time the deadline comes around, many producers and retailers may have discontinued the product anyway, which will only accelerate the phase-out. After the deadline, anyone whose addiction is such that their doctor feels quitting would cause more discomfort than good can obtain cigarettes by prescription.

Would this cause job losses? Quite probably – but no more or less than any change of industry. Digital cameras caused the loss of thousands of job in the photographic film industry around the world. Did any of us stop to think of that before we bought that digi-cam? Did we oppose diesel trains out of concern for coal miners? Did anyone object to sewerage on the grounds it would put the dunnymen out of a job? Industries change, and a deadline helps everyone to manage that change.

We are past the point of appealing to people’s sense of reason or hip pocket. Anyone who is not already persuaded by the health, ethical and economic arguments will not be convinced by more of the same. Constantly increasing taxes on tobacco under the guise of discouraging smoking is a conflict of interests. We say we want to prevent smoking, but we still take the money and factor it into the budget. Cigarettes would never be allowed to be sold if they were brought onto the market today. They’re a left-over from a time when we didn’t know any better and we have spent nearly forty years trying to catch up. If we are serious about stopping smoking, this is the way to do it.


  1. You're 100% right - problem is that there are insufficient votes in making that move to make up for the massive numbers of votes they would lose as the major smoking promoters launched a MASSIVE campaign against the changes...

  2. I see your point, but I wonder. The campaign against gambling regulations has some traction because enough people are under the impression that poker machines do more good than harm. I think smoking is different.

    Even the tobacco companies have stopped trying to pretend smoking does no harm and their arguments flounder as they try to assert the right of consumers to harm themselves. The Libs are trying to have a bob each way, but I don't think even they would push the Humphrey Appleby argument that tobacco companies are national benefactors and that everyone is better off if smokers sacrifice themselves for the greater good.