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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 9696

Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (11:26): I am very pleased to speak on the Customs Amendment (Smuggled Tobacco) Bill 2012. In beginning my remarks I take issue with one of the opening remarks of the member for Leichhardt, in which he characterised the government's approach to this as a 'slapdash' approach to policy. That is the last criticism that could be made of the government's approach to these measures to reduce rates of smoking in Australia. In fact, this bill and the other measure that the member for Leichhardt spent a great deal of time on in his speech—the reduction in the number of tobacco products that people are allowed to bring into Australia duty free—are two measures that are part of a much larger, comprehensive suite of measures that this government has been pursuing since we first came to government. As speakers throughout this debate have made reference to, these are measures that were identified and recommended by the National Preventative Health Taskforce.

So not on any measure could you characterise this bill or, indeed, any of the other measures we have put into place as a slapdash approach. It has been very clear since we came to government that the Labor government was intent on continuing the efforts of previous governments to reduce the rates of smoking in Australia. There are very good reasons for doing that in terms of the health and lifestyle of our Australian citizens, but as a government we also have a responsibility to make sure that our health dollars are spent wisely and that we do what we can through regulation and support for people to have our rates of smoking as low as possible in Australia. The health effects of smoking are well known and create a very large burden on our health system if not addressed.

I talked about the Preventative Health Taskforce. It was one of the early acts of the Labor government to put in place a preventative health task force to look at this whole question of how to improve health outcomes in Australia and thereby improve people's life outlook, and also to make the best use of our health dollars. The Preventative Health Taskforce report is very interesting reading, and one of the lessons that it contains was very informative to me.

In Australia, we are used to being world leaders in tobacco control and in the regulation that applies to tobacco companies in marketing and selling their deadly products. While we can congratulate ourselves on our achievements to date—in 1988, roughly 30 per cent of Australian adults were smokers; we have brought that down to the current rate of below 20 per cent—one of the things that the Preventative Health Taskforce warn against is complacency by the government and in Australia generally because of what has already been achieved. In their report to the government, they warn against a loss of momentum in national efforts to lower rates of smoking. One thing that really caught my attention in the report was the following statement:

… there has been a 'flattening out' in the reduction in the prevalence of smoking rates in Australia …

It goes on to say:

Between 2004 and 2007 prevalence of weekly rates fell by only 1.1 percentage points (6%), compared to a drop of 2.1 percentage points (9%) over the previous three years.

So the very clear warning in the Preventative Health Taskforce report is that, while there is effective regulation and government efforts have had a very big influence on rates of smoking, we cannot take our eye off the ball. We cannot let up in our efforts in this regard. We cannot be complacent because, as has been demonstrated very clearly in the last couple of years as the government have stepped up efforts against the tobacco industry, we are up against a very powerful, well-resourced, ruthless and unscrupulous opponent in the tobacco industry, which will stop at nothing to protect its vested interest in keeping people smoking and especially in luring young people and others to take up smoking and therefore become addicted to the products that tobacco companies sell.

That warning from the Preventative Health Taskforce is very clear. Yes, we should recognise and applaud our previous achievements and results, and we should take from them the message that strong regulation can have a big influence on smoking rates, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to maintain our focus on what governments can do by way of regulation, by way of social marketing et cetera to reduce the rates of smoking.

As I said, I refute the member for Leichhardt's claim that the government have taken a slapdash approach to this policy. This bill, like all those before it, is part of a very comprehensive suite of measures that have all been recommended and backed up by the work of the Preventative Health Taskforce.

The bill specifically amends the Customs Act 1901, creating new offences for smuggling tobacco products and for conveying or possessing smuggled tobacco products. Significantly, this bill adds a new penalty for those offences. Up till now, someone found guilty of smuggling tobacco products into Australia—bringing in tobacco products without declaring them properly and defrauding the Commonwealth of customs duties—had to pay a fine. But we found that those fines were not being paid. I think there is something like $45 million worth of unpaid fines at the moment. So the government are stepping up our efforts in this area—not only on the basis of common sense and the fact that we do not want people defrauding the Commonwealth of customs duties but also on the basis of advice given to us by the National Preventative Health Taskforce—to further reduce the rates of smoking. So we are adding a penalty of 10 years imprisonment for these offences and expanding the offences in the customs area.

As I said, this bill represents one more element of the government's approach to reducing rates of smoking. We cannot talk about this in parliament today without making reference to the decision by the High Court last week to back up the government's groundbreaking and world-first measure to introduce plain packaging. It is great to have the Attorney-General here in the chamber, as it allows me to congratulate her on the fight which, on our behalf, she took on, and for her very strong advocacy—advocacy which has been recognised right around the world and advocacy which has clearly spooked the tobacco industry.

They know that our introduction of plain packaging in Australia has sent a very clear signal to other governments around the world who want to step up and implement similar measures. The Attorney-General has mentioned that governments in Norway, France, Uruguay, New Zealand, South Africa and even China are taking very close notice of what we have done in Australia. The efforts of the tobacco companies to keep finding markets for their lethal products are very transparent, as is their blatant pursuit of self-interest in continuing to try to get new people addicted to the smoking habit. There is just no excuse for their continued efforts to fight, in the WTO and through the actions taking place in Hong Kong, against the government's legitimate measures.

I applaud the government's efforts. As I say, this bill is just one of a whole range of measures. One of the most important measures was the 25 per cent increase in the tobacco excise back in April 2010. That has already seen a reduction in the smoking rate. We have also listed nicotine replacement therapies on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. On the one hand, through the excise increase, we are making it more expensive for people to buy tobacco products and, through that measure, we are discouraging smokers—especially young smokers—from taking up the habit. We are also generating a financial incentive to quit for people who are already habitual smokers. On the other hand, through the PBS measure, we are making it easier for people who want to make the decision to quit to take up therapies—giving them a better chance of successfully quitting.

In conclusion, I want to congratulate the Attorney-General and the government for these measures. It is obviously better for their own health outcomes if people do not take up smoking or, if they are already smokers, if they quit. But the government have a responsibility to spend our health dollars in the wisest way possible. Where we see a major cause of preventable death—and smoking is the biggest of those—we have to take every step we can to combat it. This bill is just one more of those measures.

The member for Leichhardt spent a lot of time on the question of duty-free cigarettes being brought into Australia. He characterised the government's steps to address that as 'slapdash measures'. It is actually specifically referred to in a recommendation from the National Preventative Health Taskforce. In fact, the National Preventative Health Taskforce said that we should get rid of it altogether. So taking the step that the government has elected to take, going from 250 grams down to 50 grams, is, on any measure, a reasonable response to a very considered recommendation from the National Preventative Health Taskforce. For the usual vested interests to jump up and down without taking a broader look at what is at stake, either in terms of people's health or the right of the government to improve health and spending outcomes in Australia, is extremely short-sighted and not one that the government is going to be swayed by.