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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 9255

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:07): Tobacco smoking is one of the largest preventable causes of disease and premature death in Australia. About 15½ thousand Australians die from smoking related illnesses each year. Will packaging cigarettes in plain packaging make a difference? Whilst the coalition will not oppose the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011, there are important amendments which are needed.

The government's consultation with small business and retailers over this issue has been sorely lacking. Small retailers are concerned about the impact the government's plain-packaging proposal will have on their stock management and at their point of sale. The difficulty is in differentiating between packets which look almost identical. Many small retailers in the Riverina have contacted my office in relation to this to express their deep concerns. At present, cigarettes are hidden. No marketing is brandished in stores and all advertising of smoking has been removed. Why would removing colour and name branding make any different to smokers who want to buy cigarettes? Smoking is an addiction through what is in the product, not what the packet looks like.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men and the top cause of cancer death. It is the fourth most common cancer in women and ranked second most common cause of cancer death. In 1998, there were 27,675 new cases of cancer in New South Wales. Of these, 2,724 people were diagnosed with lung cancer—1,870 males and 854 females. Males were 2.6 times more likely to develop lung cancer than women, and 2.7 times more likely to die from it.

The coalition has always acted decisively to address the prevalence of smoking in this nation and has a proud history in reducing the smoking toll. Robert Menzies first introduced a voluntary tobacco code for television in 1966. In 1976, the Fraser government implemented a ban on the advertising of tobacco products on television as well as on radio. The former Minister for Health and Ageing and now the Leader of the Opposition was an essential player in increasing the size of the vivid warnings on cigarette packs and helped to drive down the rates of smoking in Australia. As a result of these initiatives, the prevalence of smoking in Australia declined to be amongst the lowest in the world. In fact, between 1998 and 2007 smoking prevalence in people 14 years and older fell from 20.8 per cent to 16.6 per cent.

Any suggestion that the coalition is soft on tobacco companies is just plain nonsense. We do understand the need to drive down smoking rates, which is for the good of the individuals concerned and also for the overall health of the nation. The coalition continues to support sensible measures which actively discourage smoking. We have recently supported legislation to tighten electronic advertising restrictions. For this reason, we will not oppose the government's plain-packaging legislation, but we do seek to move worthwhile amendments.

Labor's bill claims there is 'significant evidence' to suggest that plain packaging will work, that it will actually drive down the use of tobacco products. It is fair to say that a lot of that evidence is inconclusive at best. It puts forward a range of hypotheses which I am afraid do not come up with a definite conclusion which is not quite as convincing as the government would have us believe, so I have some significant doubts about where the government is trying to take us in that respect. Having said that, I note that the problem the government has in this space is that we are talking about a legal product. I am uneasy about any attempts by a government to strip away the property rights of an individual or a company. The concern there is always going to be about what is next.

This Labor-Green alliance is taking away our freedom to make our own decisions and pushing us into a nanny state. We know that high-fat, high-sugar foods are not necessarily good for us and understand overconsumption of alcohol is not desirable for a healthy lifestyle. However, are we going to put obesity warnings on hamburgers and packets of biscuits or plain-packaging bans on alcohol and bottles of wine? Is that where we are heading with this nanny state type legislation? If the Greens have their way, perhaps or even probably yes.

I make these comments in a constructive way, because I abhor smoking. My own father died from lung cancer three years ago. It is something I personally feel very strongly about. But I am worried that the government is investing a lot of time and effort in a particular initiative without the evidence base or scientifically proven results which would be worth the expense and effort of the path along which we are heading.

Whilst smoking is on the decline in Australia, it is particularly concerning that almost 60,000 teenagers aged between 15 and 17 are regular smokers, and five per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds smoke. I believe more education is needed about smoking, particularly at the secondary school level. Primary school children too need to be warned of the dangers of smoking. We need to be getting through to children and teenagers about the dangers smoking poses to them, and the long-term implications diseases such as cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases pose. This is where all the effort of the government should be going: into education.

In many cases, a premature death is just one aspect of the finality of smoking. Living with smoking related symptoms is cruel and painful. This is the path we as a parliament, as adults who have witnessed the effects of smoking, should be concentrating on: educating younger generations, not simplifying the marketing of what cigarette packs look like. It is not an uncommon sight to see pregnant women smoking. Despite advertisements on television and the graphic warnings advising of the risks of smoking to an unborn baby, the addiction factor is so strong that many pregnant women continue to smoke even though it could harm their unborn child.

I cannot emphasise enough that we need to be investing more in education: educating these women, educating students and helping smokers through a quit program with the appropriate support required. The health benefits of quitting smoking are remarkable. The human body starts to repair the damage from the very first day a smoker quits. Within eight hours, the excess carbon monoxide is out of the bloodstream, within five days the nicotine has left the body and within three months lung function starts to improve. If a person quits at the age of 50, you halve the risk of smoking related death. But if a person quits at the age of 30 they avoid almost all of the excess risk. Education and support are vital to helping a smoker quit. Ultimately, it is up to the individual if they want to quit to have the absolute willpower to do so. We cannot force someone to quit. Tobacco control is an important measure, but we must tread carefully because we must not become—as I said before—a nanny state.

While Australia is generally seen by its peers as one country which has a lower rate of illicit and counterfeit tobacco, there are some concerns that plain packaging may increase this rate. The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service annual report shows that over the past three years it has seized 743 tonnes of tobacco and 217 million cigarettes. The government has completely ignored the counterfeit tobacco issue and has made no attempt to address it through this legislation. This is despite the fact that the World Health Organisation also recommends implementing a track and trace regime for tobacco products and strengthening the legislation against illicit trade in tobacco products. The government has instead let the tobacco companies manage their own tracking of tobacco products on, would you believe, a voluntary basis.

The freedom of the individual is paramount. This legislation to impose plain packaging on cigarettes has been described by many as a nanny state initiative, and some see it as a complete waste of time. As proposed, the legislation represents another hit to businesses, particularly small retail operators, and consumers and it threatens to drive customers from small businesses into the arms of the retail giants, the big duopoly. Worse, I fail to see how it will work as a smoking prevention measure. Cigarettes are already required to be away from sight at most points of purchase. Wrapping cigarettes in olive-coloured plain packets has been proudly proclaimed by the health minister as a world-first, but it is a smokescreen. The legislation introduced simply plays politics and achieves nothing. I think smoking rates will continue to fall regardless of this legislation.