x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Laws even tougher on Australia's smokers

It will be illegal for shops to display cigarettes and ban parents from lighting up in cars with children.

A driver with children in the back seat lights a cigarette while stopped at traffic lights on Parramatta Road, Sydney.
A driver with children in the back seat lights a cigarette while stopped at traffic lights on Parramatta Road, Sydney.

SYDNEY // Beleaguered smokers in Australia are facing a further squeeze as the country's most populous state, New South Wales, brings in some of the world's toughest anti-tobacco laws that will make it illegal for shops to display cigarettes and will ban parents from lighting up in cars where children are passengers. Smoking is Australia's single major cause of ill health and premature death. It kills more than 15,000 people in the country each year.

Across the continent the freedom of smokers to indulge their habit has been systematically eroded in recent years. There are few public refuges left, and the smokers' world continues to shrink. They are no longer welcome at Australian beaches or shopping centres, and the various state and territory governments have outlawed cigarettes inside pubs and bars, while campaigners say that bold new measures restricting the display of tobacco will help reduce consumption in a country where one out of every six people smokes.

"These are some of the most significant moves ever introduced in Australia," said Simon Chapman, a specialist in public health at the University of Sydney. "It's a radical step which basically says that cigarettes are not an ordinary grocery item like confectionery, bread, milk and newspapers that can be put on open display. "They are more like pharmaceutical drugs that are kept out in the dispensary away from the sight of the customer that you have to ask for."

The prominent placing of cigarettes in shops and service stations is considered by health professionals to be the "ultimate marketing tool". Retailers will have six months to hide their cigarettes and cigars under the counter, while some specialist tobacconists will have a year to adhere to the new rules. Ian Olver, the head of the Cancer Council of Australia, said the legislation - the first of its kind in Australia - would be a telling blow against smoking.

"It works because it doesn't attract new people and particularly children and young adults in supermarkets to the brightly coloured displays, and we know from research that the smokers already know what brand they're going to buy so they don't need the advertising that's there. It's not going to make any difference to what they choose. So, it is effective in trying to stop recruitment of new smokers."

Government officials have estimated that 10 per cent of Australian children aged between 12 and 17 are regular smokers. Hard-hitting television advertisements have repeatedly urged Australians to give up smoking. Graphic images of smokers with advanced mouth cancer and gangrenous feet have persuaded many to quit and smoking rates are gradually falling but those explicit warnings have not had a major impact among the young.

Gail Meagher, 59, a Sydney mother-of-two, was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. Although she is not sure what caused her cancerous tumours, she was a smoker when she was young. "I'm sure the experts would have done a lot of studies to see what the general psyche is of the people who do take up smoking these days knowing all the risks," she said. "We didn't know those risks at the time." Mrs Meagher was asked how she feels when she sees young people happily puffing away on a cigarette. "I feel like running up and pulling it out of their mouths and saying 'do you want to end up like me?'" she said.

The New South Wales government is also joining its counterparts in South Australia and Tasmania in banning smoking in cars where children are passengers. Verity Firth, the New South Wales minister responsible for cancer research, said tough measures were needed. "We don't like to say we're declaring war on smokers," she said. "We understand that it's an addictive drug, and it's hard to give up. But we are declaring war on tobacco marketing and people who make decisions that impact on the health of others.

"So, if you're smoking a cigarette, yes, at the end of the day that's your decision, but if your environmental tobacco smoke is straying into the person next to you in the pub or onto your child in the back seat of your car, then that is something where the state will intervene." Not surprisingly, the new laws that will stop shops displaying cigarettes have not gone down well among retailers. Evelyn Pilatus, the manager of the Sol Levy tobacco store in Sydney, said the rules were unreasonable. "It's an unfair deal because the government make millions on the taxes on the tobacco, but by the same token they're prepared to try and hinder us selling a legal product. If it's not legal, then take it off the market. They can't afford to do that because they'll lose too much money, so instead of doing that they just make our life difficult.

"Some people need a smoke for relaxation to calm their nerves, and if they need a cigarette to enable them to be more in control, not to be an axe murderer or something, they're better off smoking." @Email:pmercer@thenational.ae