The crisp spring air chills the Melbourne CBD. Office workers throng the footpaths in front of the sky high buildings. As some continue down the street in search of warmth from the limited sunlight, a few congregate exactly two metres away from the entrance doors. Puffs of smoke hover above them as they enjoy their own kind of warmth.
The cigarette between the fingers of men and women who converse two metres away from the office doors (by law) brings them some minimal warmth, as they crowd together a little more. The wind blows the cigarette smoke into the direction of a popular café, with the patrons giving these office workers a serious stare down.
“Excuse me, do you mind moving away from us? All that disgusting smoke is coming towards us and it is putting us off our food,” a middle-aged woman says. She looks towards the smokers in disgust as they grunt and roll their eyes at her, turning the other way to face the street.
This is the reality facing modern day smokers in Australia. No matter your occupation, your social-economic status, age or any other defining factor, Australians have changed their attitudes towards smoking and smokers in general. According to a survey conducted by Roy Morgan in 2015, more than three-quarters of those interviewed said the main reason that their opinion about smoking changed was not just because of the health risk, but because of the way the general public started to view smokers and smoking as a whole.
Katherine McPherson, from the Melbourne-based Social Research Centre is a smoker. Her job is researching changing social norms and structures in society. That has made her realise how quickly change did come about in terms of laws to do with smoking, which included banned smoking locations across the state, and the even more controversial plain packaging agreement. As smoking laws are dealt with by state governments, they are different across the country.
“It has been a snowball effect. Fifteen years ago, the biggest killer in Australia came from smoking – whether it was directly or indirectly through passive smoking. People have always known the dangers of smoking, but it was not until technology developed even further and advertisements and real-life stories about the issue came out that the general public started to take notice.”
A major turning point in the social and cultural shift from smoking being acknowledged as a positive activity to a negative, was greater emphasis on the dangers of passive smoking, especially in enclosed spaces and the impact it has on children. A key motivator for this was that in 2003 a Victorian family lost not only their mother due to lung cancer from smoking, but the middle child also suffered severe complications due to the mother smoking while pregnant and smoking with her kids nearby.
Through extensive research into drug and alcohol culture in Australia, Katherine has seen not just through the research but first-hand how the public responds to smokers.
“Having a smoke these days is completely different to having a smoke in the years you and I were born” she says, laughing. “Back when I was born, they had just introduced no smoking in hospitals and there was a massive outcry, the irony of it. Because of the pressure the pubic have put on the government to make stricter laws, the majority of people now see smoking as something that is taboo and not acceptable.”
Katherine also highlights the fact that Australia’s multiculturalism may have contributed to the growing number of smokers in the mid to late 20th century. “In many European and Asian countries, smoking is a norm and something that is still quite easily affordable. Bringing that kind of culture here means it tends to catch on, which made it harder to break the smoking mould.”
She looks outside – her office comes with a view of a little café on William Street. “As a society, we now know it is dangerous to smoke around food, where there are lots of people around, and in places where children are and can be affected directly or indirectly.”
Pulmonologist Dr Nick Wilsmore explains that doctors also had a very big part in the change that smoking had on society. “Tobacco smoking and alcohol, especially in teens and young adults started to become a high concern. The uncensored nature of smoking made it okay for so long, and it is hard to reverse so many years of acceptance.”
He specialises in lung cancer and diseases, so he has seen firsthand the damage smoking and passive smoking can cause. “Trying to tell a family that their mother father or child is dying because of smoking and similar causes is heartbreaking.
“If there even is a silver lining to this it is that social change which has brought about plain packaging and Quitline advertisements have given smokers more of a push to quit. Something as simple as an association between food handing and the dangers that smoking brings with it can have quite an effect on someone’s perception of smoking.”
Quitline counsellor Tracey Moore agrees. “Our campaigns have become more widespread and we aim to get to audiences that it will have the most direct impact with.”
Over the past six years, Quitline has helped almost one million Australians fully quit or attempt to quit smoking. That in itself shows the changing times in Australia, according to Tracey. “The proportion of smokers, especially between the ages of 16 to 35, has declined significantly since 2010. Younger people are smoking less compared to their older counterparts, meaning they are more aware of the dangers of smoking. Which, in turn, means the early education, advertising and word of mouth from the general public about smoking is having a good effect.”
The lunch time rush hour is coming to an end, and the office workers all put out their cigarettes in the bin provided. One woman lingers around and looks ahead to the tram stop, where she sees a Quitline advertisement beaming back at her. Quickly, she takes out her phone and dials a number. It a moment of silence and stillness in a busy city, she speaks into the iPhone, staring down the Quitline sign as she begins to talk.