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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 9247


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (16:37): In my brief contribution on the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill and Trade Marks Amendment (Tobacco Plain Packing) Bill I will be expressing my support for plain packaging of tobacco, making a few observations from the health perspective and also acknowledging the good work done by my colleague Andrew Southcott in his attempts to pull together general agreement in this area. It raises elements of free trade, the extinguishment of IP for firms, the absolute pre-eminent objective of any government to reduce tobacco consumption and complex issues around trademarks and the illegal importation of tobacco that can be a result of overregulation in that industry. All of those issues taken together, the one concern of any Australian government, whichever side of this chamber, should be to reduce tobacco consumption and smoking rates. Australia has the best record in the world for achieving that. There are probably only three or four countries I can think of—Singapore, Sweden and possibly one or two others—that have lower rates, although in the United States there is a handful of states that have a lower prevalence of daily tobacco consumption than Australia.

We do it pretty well, and that history goes right back to voluntary codes of conduct under the Menzies administration and efforts by the Fraser government and by Labor administrations since then. But one thing that is certain is that the great drops that were acknowledged internationally occurred under the Howard government in a series of sequential ratcheting down of tobacco consumption in Australia, including what at the time was the largest campaign in Australian history funding public awareness of the dangers of tobacco.

What is interesting about this debate is that every time we approach a new forefront in tobacco control everything that went before appears anachronistic. I suspect that other nations will follow us on plain packaging if it proves not to extinguish IP or to lead to significant challenges in the High Court. So my key point is that the one amendment that we are making to this legislation, which is the ability to leave a small identifier not on the packet but on the package or the carton of cigarettes, be they a four, a six or a 10, for easy stock tracking and identification so that those working in small business can identify them quite easily without relying on a simple font of small point is a very good thing. I would put my support behind that amendment. Once the packet is opened, all that branding is removed; it is almost unheard of to buy cigarettes in packets at retail level in Australia because there is no volume discount, unlike overseas where we sometimes do see these larger packets coming into the country.

There is always the possibility that plain packaging will make it a little easier for illicit tobacco. We know that 743 million tonnes have been seized by Customs in the last three years along with 200 million cigarettes. That is just an aside. We will deal with that problem when it comes along. The best problem you can have is fewer people smoking and more illicit stuff—let us have that battle with the illicit stuff when the time comes. Today is about what a government does to make tobacco as unattractive as possible. I can see that, fundamentally, every individual has a right to purchase what they want—that has not been impeded—but certainly the great power of marketing through the brand will be nullified with this legislation and it is worth a go.

I will not stand here as probably the only health researcher in this chamber and say, 'We won't do this until we see the evidence.' I think with tobacco the bar is fundamentally different. With tobacco there is no safe level of consumption. We know tobacco is highly addictive and has become socially acceptable by virtue of centuries during which we could never link cause and effect. Were we able to do that, were the implications of tobacco realised an hour or a day after you smoked, tobacco would not exist in society. It is the latency in the temporal element between exposure and disease that leads tobacco to have this almost complete penetration through certain seams of society, with levels of smoking between 15 and 25 per cent.

Due to my interest in Indigenous health I am concerned about Indigenous levels of smoking. What we know is that right across urban, regional and remote Indigenous Australia smoking is still prevalent in excess of 50 per cent. What disappointed me earlier this month was the Minister for Indigenous Health trumpeting a fall in smoking levels. You only had to read the report from which this minister was quoting to see that the report itself said there was no significant change. To be clutching at one and two per cent changes and highlight them as successes is disappointing because it is a minister taking leave of the evidence in his own report. It is misleading to take a report and assign conclusions to it that simply are not supported by the very text. We need a minister who reads the report. We needs a minister who says, 'Crosscheck that and show me exactly where that claim comes from.'

What we are seeing is a pattern of behaviour to whitewash over the data, send it through Commonwealth departments and then allow these tiny little sound bites that somehow encourage the Australian people to believe we are making progress in Indigenous health. I desperately want to see the progress, but I want to see the evidence, and if there is no evidence for it I do not want people to be misleading the Australian public. You simply cannot take data from three jurisdictions and then quote it as a national trend. That is misleading. It was done repeatedly by this minister. It is simply wrong to take cardiovascular disease and say, 'We are delighted that there is a 29 per cent decrease over the 10-year period of that study into Indigenous levels of cardiac disease mortality,' when mainstream levels fell 35 per cent and you do not mention it. The gap may well have opened over the last 10 years, but this minister cannot acknowledge the possibility. You only have to see there is a 29 per cent fall in Indigenous Australia and a 35 per cent fall in the mainstream to know that there is potentially a problem that needs funding and an address, but nothing is coming from this government. Look at Closing the gap that has been implemented with a highlighted, targeted area of smoking and find for me in all that fine print an attempt to measure smoking levels in Indigenous Australia. You will not find it. Try to find for me evidence that there are fewer cigarette sales in Indigenous communities. You will not find it. This is a government so determined to measure the irrelevant and hide from reality that I fear that, at the end of Closing the Gap, not only will it not have closed, not only will the gap not even be starting to close, but this government will feel they have to tell a completely different story about Closing the Gap. They have not got the evidence on the other side. And why? They are not collecting the data. They are not interested in whether Indigenous Australians are smoking less; they are not even counting. Instead, what they are measuring is the number of public health officials on the ground and the number of anti-smoking programs rolled out. They are fabulous inputs and absolutely necessary but are in no way sufficient to reduce smoking levels. So do not measure the stuff that does not matter. The critical element—the independent variable—is how many people are smoking. How much are they smoking? How many cigarettes are being sold? That is not even being counted. So how can they be serious about reducing smoking if in Indigenous Australia we have rates of over 50 per cent and, most concerning of all, Indigenous pregnant mums with the same smoking rates? Unlike most of the rest of the world, there is no difference between the pregnant mums and the rest of Indigenous Australia. So there is one area where we genuinely have to focus.

In many ways this legislation is difficult to argue against. I think it is worth giving it a go, and the reality is that there will be a slow and progressive ratcheting of pressure onto the tobacco industry. This is just, in the footnote of history, another small move in that general direction. And I genuinely hope it works. I hope it succeeds. I am prepared to give it a go. I can understand it might be a little harder for shopkeepers to identify stock sometimes, but I am prepared to wear that in the interest of making it as unattractive as possible to smoke. Everyone listening, both on the broadcast and here in the gallery, will say, 'If you hate smoking that much, when are you going to ban it?' But of course there is no discussion about that.

Marcia Langton makes the suggestion that, if we care so much about alcohol consumption and pregnant mums, why don't we put them on a banned list? Are we that serious about it or are we not? Here is a government that does not even have that debate. I am not saying to do it; I am saying let's consider some options. Emblematic of this legislation is that these guys over here are fiddling with the packaging. They have been preoccupied with the packaging for 12 months. Ever since they gave it up on alcopops it has been packaging—and doesn't that represent how far they have penetrated in this debate? Nowhere into cigarettes themselves; it is purely the packaging.

On my watch I can say that we supported the removal of branding from cigarette packaging, going from what is already 30 per cent down, effectively, to a very simple font with 14-point text. Let's see it work. Let's see if it is effective. I wonder about government entities deciding what the uncoolest colour is. There is actually someone who was paid to work this out. Someone was paid here to work out the most unattractive colour for a packet of cigarettes. And what did they come up with? They came up with olive green. I will tell you one thing: today's uncool is tomorrow's cool. Whoever worked that out did not realise that in the same month they decided on olive green Porsche released their latest 912 turbo. And what colour was it at the Melbourne show? What colour was it on the front of the magazine in the Australian? Olive green. So, before we get too smart about what colour we need to make a cigarette packet, let's focus on what is inside. Let's focus on whether we are serious about actually measuring what is happening both in the Australian public and, more importantly, in Indigenous Australia.

I finish where I started. Fifty-two or 53 per cent—sometimes it falls to 47 per cent prevalence—is a major killer in Indigenous Australia. I would like just one-tenth of the time spent quibbling over plain packaging and trying to line this side up as though they are for Big Tobacco just because they receive political donations—if you do not like it, ban it. There is no move over here to do that. If you do not like it, ban the sector. But there is no move to do that. They are quite happy to make a cheap political point. But while they have their hands on the reins of government this lot will be judged on what we have achieved in reducing smoking.

My great fear is that all we achieve out of this health minister is plain packaging. Once that is done it is like: 'Whew! We've done alcopops and that's out of the way. We've done some plain packaging around tobacco and that's out of the way. Now let's just roll a bit more money into programs—and don't measure anything too closely in case tobacco and smoking rates don't fall. The last thing we'd want the Australian people to know is that it made no difference. So, to be sure of that, let's not count anything.' This is the great problem. They do not mind going for the headline. They are an administration excellent at writing a press release. But then the rest of Australia scurries around saying, 'What are they trying to achieve here?' It was government by press release for three years under the former Prime Minister, and now I fear it is government by headline grabbing.

So you have bipartisan support. We will give it a go. We will see if it works. There should be no problem so long as IP is not extinguished. If it is extinguished, our only fear is not that tobacco companies are going to make a swag of money; our fear is that the Australian people have to pay for it. If there is a challenge in the High Court, isn't it the case that if the decision is awarded against the government it is the Australian people who pay for that? If there is possibly a way of not extinguishing IP but removing the branding from packets of cigarettes, this would have been wholeheartedly supported. While I am not a lawyer and cannot give an opinion, the fact is that under our amendment there will be a small amount of branding right on the end of the package that allows shopkeeper to find it. By that element alone IP is not extinguished. It is a very important point to make. We are trying to save this government from its own legislation and from a High Court challenge, but we cannot help them if they cannot help themselves.

We will support the plain packaging. We hope that it makes a difference. We implore the government to count and see if it does. Most importantly of all, we ask for way more focus on Indigenous smoking than there has been already, because up to now through the Closing the Gap objectives we have seen a whole host of counting inputs but precious little counting of outcomes.