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  • Emilie Dye

Australia can’t hit smoking targets by going cold-turkey

Updated: May 19, 2021

Australia has tried gums, patches, sprays, high excise taxes, and plain packaging.

Australia has tried gums, patches, sprays, high excise taxes, and plain packaging. But for the last decade, Australia has collectively failed to reduce smoking rates. If the Morrison Government wants to change the status quo it needs to consider legalising and properly regulating smoke-free vaping products to help Australians quit cigarettes. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s triennial National Drug Strategy Household Survey is going to be released today. It undoubtedly contains a barrage of selective quotes and cherry-picked data. Meanwhile, the government and public-health spin-doctors will pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

After the ash settles, the facts will spell out a different story to the one we’ll get from highly paid government PR operatives. When it comes to being loose with the truth, Greg Hunt is true to form. Throughout his tenure as Health Minister, Hunt has used outdated reports and misleading statistics to justify his crusade against vaping. 

When the Therapeutic Goods Administration and Hunt state that we don’t have enough evidence saying vaping is less harmful than cigarettes, it is because they are quoting studies from over half a decade ago. When they use scary figures like ‘we have seen a 78 per cent increase’ in vaping among American teenagers which could easily mean instead of four kids vaping seven kids are vaping this year.

A better statistic: only 0.4 per cent of never-smokers vape, not quite an epidemic as Hunt would have you believe. Meanwhile, we have seen an unprecedented drop in teenage smoking, both in the United States and Australia, since the introduction of vaping.  In 2008, State and Territory Governments committed to reducing smoking rates to 10 per cent by 2018. Health Minister Tanya Plibersek recommitted to the target in 2012. But 2018 came and went, and the target was missed.

In August 2019, in a performance that would make a North Korean propagandist blush, current Minister Hunt stated the ‘government would set a new target of reducing smoking rates below 10 per cent by 2025.’

When Hunt (re)announced the same target (11 years after it was first announced and a full 12 months after we failed to meet it), he shamelessly manipulated the facts and revealed the government is making up anti-smoking policy as it goes along. A recent McKell Institute report showed smoking rates in the US and UK are lower than in Australia for the first time ever. Smoking rates have also fallen dramatically in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Japan and South Korea. Cigarette sales in Japan decreased by an unprecedented 72 per cent between 2014 and 2018. Meanwhile, Australia’s quit rates have stagnated. 

Australia needs a new approach to tobacco harm reduction. We must draw on the experiences of countries which are successfully reducing their smoking rates. More than 50 countries around the world and every OECD nation, with the exception of Australia and Turkey, have legalised and properly regulated smoke-free products.

Science no longer questions the effectiveness of smoke-free products and quitting aids. According to Public Health England, smoke-free products are 95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes and ‘smokers should switch to e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking’. Global regulators and health bodies agree, backing these products.

The Australian College of Physicians acknowledges vaping is not for non-smokers, but is ‘something that should be available for smokers who are keen to improve their health and move away from cigarette smoking.’

When it comes to vaping, Australia should copy regulatory models in the United Kingdom and New Zealand and seek to strike a balance between two key principles: protecting young people from the risks associated with smoking vaping and preventing initiation of new users; and supporting adult smokers to switch to a form of nicotine consumption significantly less harmful than smoking. 

To lower smoking rates and achieve its targets, the Australian governments must appropriately regulate smoke-free alternatives now. Millions of Australians continue to smoke without a viable exit plan; their lives literally depend on this legislation.

This article first appeared in the Spectator on 16 July 2020.

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