Tobacconists transformed from suppliers into pariahs

Widespread disgust at the scourge of smoking has now filtered through to retail outlets, writes Lauren van de Griendt

Ben Crossley, 23 – clearly no believer in pulling punches – coolly supplied his job description as “a merchant of cancer and death”.

The licensed tobacco dealer – who works at a store in a northern suburbs shopping plaza – conveyed no moral reservations, let alone guilt, when asked about the ethics of his chosen line of work.

“Smokers are going to smoke … and cigarettes are no worse than alcohol,” said Crossley, a non-smoker himself.

In his view, the onus for minimising the risks tobacco posed to consumers lay with governments: it was their job to regulate.

The stigma that surrounds smoking is deeper today than it used to be, and every day Crossley feels branded with it. “Parents drag their kids away from the store all the time,” he said.

“They think it’s dirty or disgusting, and don’t want their children anywhere near it or me.”

Susan Fabri, 40, a mother of three and child-care worker, voiced some sympathy for those whose livelihood depended on tobacco, saying: “I have nothing against those in the industry. … I’m sure it’s difficult.”

Her next words, though, confirmed Crossley’s experience: “But I wouldn’t want my children in or around a store that sold cigarettes and products like that [exclusively]. … It’s just something you don’t want to expose them to.”

According to Quitline, smoking causes 84 per cent of new lung cancers in men and 77 per cent of those in women, making it the most preventable form of death from cancer.

On top of this, as outlined in the 2013 National Drug Strategy household survey, 13.3 per cent – or nearly one in seven – of Australians aged 18 and over smoke one or more cigarettes daily.

Such statistics raise the question whether an outright ban on cigarettes and other tobacco-related products would be appropriate, practical or even possible.

Asked what he thought about such a course of action, Crossley said, “People are always going to smoke, and no ban could change that. Just consider the alcohol prohibition (in the United States), and look at the good that did.”

Instead, he proposed legalising marijuana – currently illegal under Australian law – as an alternative product, saying that he believed the cannabis plant did less physiological harm than tobacco.

According to cannabis researcher Robert Melamine, writing in the Harm Reduction Journal back in 2005, marijuana smoke possesses a different pharmacological make-up to tobacco, so it is not as carcinogenic.

He also said marijuana smoke contains cannabinoids, chemical compounds capable of suppressing pain stemming from cancer.

Taylah Ferreira, 18, an arts student who works as a bartender, said she had misgivings about selling cigarettes. “I feel awful. But I can’t tell people not to (smoke). It’s my job.”

A pro-marijuana activist, Ferreira said marijuana was “a healthier option, and has greater benefits than tobacco”.

Ideally, an outright ban on cigarettes would be “a great idea” but realistically “it’s an industry that makes too much money to be shut down”.

According to a recent article in The Australian, the tobacco industry has undergone an unexpected revenue boom, with Americans alone spending more on cigarettes in the past year than on beer and soft drinks combined.

Big Tobacco raked in around $US18.4 billion last year (nearly $A25 billion) last year, with worldwide sales of roughly 5.5 trillion cigarettes.

This is despite an overall decline in cigarette sales and the number of Australians who smoke, as well as an increase in regulations imposed throughout the past decade.

Avid smoker and marketing manager Cristina Louka, 23, when asked her thoughts on the prospective ban, replied: “I see how a ban could be a good idea, but what about all the people who already smoke? What’s our alternative?

“There’s just so many smokers today, even though that number is going down … and so an outright ban would just be outright unfair.”