Will new laws make smokers quit for good?

Living with a smoking-related disease, a scary possibility. Photo by Olivia King.
Smoking rates in Australia have dropped significantly since the plain packaging laws were introduced, however it is still the number one cause of preventable deaths. Quit Victoria is working hard to make smoking history. Olivia King reports.

Beth, a 22-year-old student living in Melbourne, has been smoking since she was 13. What may have started as an innocent act, most likely the result of peer pressure or party culture, has now developed into an addiction.

A large part of this addiction is simply habit. Beth wakes up in the morning, makes herself a coffee and has a cigarette before starting her day. She gets in the car to drive to work, and has another one. It’s habits like this that make it so hard for smokers to quit.

Beth is not alone in this. She is among the 12.6 per cent of Victoria’s population, which equates to around 700,000 people, who smoke on a daily basis. However, studies have shown that the rate of smoking in Australia is on a steady decline.

Smoking rates in Australia have decreased significantly since the plain packaging laws were introduced in 2012, and have now halved since 1980.

The idea behind this law was to reduce the visual appeal of packets and particular brands, and to increase the health warning impact by providing photos of smoking-related diseases.

Director of Quit Victoria, Sarah White, says “it is also to stop the idea that some brand names that include the words ‘light’ or ‘easy’ or ‘free’ mean that they’re not as harmful as other brands.”

Evaluations were conducted in 2015 to see whether the plain packaging laws were working, and after 14 separate studies, the results showed that there was a 27 per cent increase in the number of smokers who were attempting to quit, and a significant increase in the amount of people considering quitting.

The studies also revealed that because of plain packaging and the health warnings, smokers were more likely to try and conceal their packs from sight, and were more likely to be put off buying them because of the large, graphic images printed on the packs.

Sarah White says, “The act of a smoker not wanting to display their cigarette packet on a table is what we call a ‘micro behaviour’, which suggests that they are going to go on to quit.”

Smoker Beth says, “I smoke Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and before plain packaging was introduced I didn’t mind leaving my deck on a table because they were gold and quite nice looking, and didn’t bother anyone. Now, they almost always have a photo of some black teeth or a diseased foot, and my friends often comment on it and it slightly embarrasses me.”

Despite the decrease in the number of smokers, particularly since the plain packaging laws were introduced, smoking is still the number one cause of preventable deaths in Australia.

On average, 11 people die every day from smoking-related causes, and thousands are living with smoking-related diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema. Because of this, there is a high cost to the health system and to society in general.

There is another way Australia is attempting to marginalize smoking and the tobacco industry.

Millions of Australians have a portion of their pension funds invested in the tobacco industry. Most Australian workers don’t know this, but under the ‘default option’ in their superannuation, their money is being invested in several big tobacco companies.

However, a Melbourne cancer doctor has been working hard to stop this.

Dr Bronwyn King of Epworth Hospital was shocked to discover that some of her superannuation was being invested in the tobacco industry.

She had been treating patients with lung cancer  at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre when she found out that she had been unwittingly supporting the production of cigarettes. “I thought it was a very bad fit for me as a cancer doctor. I had watched hundreds of people die from tobacco-related disease,” she says.

Around the time Dr King learned this, the superannuation company First State Super joined with Health Super, so she approached the board with her concerns and presented her ideas. After considering all the issues around the tobacco industry, First State Super made the decision to go completely tobacco-free in 2012.

Dr King now runs her own organisation, Tobacco Free Portfolios. Her aim is to inform citizens who may not know the economic affect they are having on the industry. She also hopes that through her work she can eventually eradicate any investments by superannuation companies to the production of cigarettes. So far, Dr King has been successful with 35 superannuation companies also deciding to go tobacco-free.

Another way Australia is combatting the tobacco industry is through taxation. Price rises for cigarettes are common as the federal government routinely increases the tax it levies. The price of a pack of cigarettes will go up again in September 2017, this time by 12.5 per cent, and will continue to rise by the same amount for the next four years.

“The government has committed to raising the tax on cigarettes,” says Quit Victoria director Sarah White. “That will affect the prices of the brands, but we will see the cigarette companies probably bringing in cheaper brands with less profit, as a result of the tax increases, to try and keep people hooked.”

Sarah White says Quit Victoria will continue to help anyone to quit smoking, regardless of how the industry attempts to keep people addicted. “We estimate that about 16 per cent of people who call up the Quitline alone are successful each year.

“We know that if we add nicotine replacement therapies, things like patches, gum and lozenges, we increase that even further,” says Sarah. “It could be as high as one in three people using these supports are quitting, so that’s pretty good odds.”

If you have been thinking about quitting, call the Quitline today on 13 7848 or visit their website at www.quit.org.au