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Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Page: 8735

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (17:40): I rise today to speak in favour of the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011. In this building, we have many disagreements. We saw only very, very recently, in fact earlier today, an hour of bile, of nasty invective, from people on that side of the chamber. But I am sure that there is one thing which we can all agree on, and that is the importance of improving the health of Australian citizens. The Greens believe that this bill will improve people's health. It will mean that fewer people smoke. For that reason, we are very, very pleased to support the government on this important reform, and we stand behind it.

I am also very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this bill because I know what it will mean for the lives of ordinary Australians. Before entering politics, I spent my professional life as a GP and later as a public health specialist. As a former clinician, I understand very well the impact that this bill will have on the lives of ordinary people. I have been with patients as they struggle to come to terms with being given a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer. I have seen the look in their eyes as it dawns on them that they have days or months left on this planet. I have been with them as they lose weight, as they struggle for breath and as they lie in excruciating pain. It is a death you would not wish on your worst enemy. Sadly, it is an experience that is all too common. Indeed, I suspect there are many people here in this chamber who have lost friends and family to tobacco related illnesses. With every life lost there are many other lives that are affected—parents leave behind young kids, adults leave behind grieving partners and families are shattered. If we can spare them this misery then nothing should stand in our way.

I am also aware of the impact that the damage from tobacco has at a population level, and the statistics on this are alarming. Almost a third of adult males still smoke worldwide, and we know that smoking will kill half of them. Around the world, 150 people will die from smoking while I deliver this speech. More than half a million non-smokers will die this year just from the exposure to other people's smoke. Smoking globally is on the rise and every week enough young people around the world start smoking to fill the city of Canberra twice over. In our own part of the world, a quarter of the young people in the western Pacific region will die from tobacco use.

Despite some progress here at home, the situation is still very, very serious. One in six Australians still smoke, and each year around 15,000 Australians die from tobacco related illnesses. Improving the health of the Australian community is reason enough to act but reducing the consumption of tobacco, which this bill will do, makes sense also for our bottom line. The economic costs of tobacco addiction are estimated at over $31 billion each year, which is more than half of the total health budget and 50 per cent more than the entire defence budget. It is a staggering sum of money. If we could divert just a fraction of those costs to the economy we could inject billions more in funding into schools and hospitals—and we would still have money to spare. As it is, we currently pay for 750,000 hospital bed days each year and $600 million is spent by our hospitals directly on treatment of these diseases. It is one bill we should not have to pay. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and illness. The costs are huge and an enormous burden on our nation's health system, and no government should sit on its hands on this issue.

Thankfully, the debate around tobacco has shifted considerably since the 1940s, when three out of every four adults smoked. During the war, charities sent cigarettes to the front line and people actually apologised for not smoking. My partner, Lucy, told me a story about her grandmother, who would blow smoke up all the kids' sleeves and they would laugh at it. Since the US Surgeon General's landmark report in 1964, however, the global debate around smoking has changed, and it has changed for the better. We have seen changes around the world, including government funded anti-smoking campaigns. We have seen price used as a mechanism, with higher taxes on cigarettes to provide an incentive to help people quit. In many countries we have seen smoking phased out of work places. We have seen it phased out of cinemas, planes and restaurants and, most recently, we have seen the introduction, particularly here in Australia, of graphic warning labels. And now we are looking at outdoor smoking bans in many places.

While we do have many disagreements in this place, it is important to put on the record that the Greens give credit to the current government for taking significant and courageous action to combat this problem. The national partnership agreement on preventative health at COAG, the Preven­tative Health Taskforce and the establish­ment of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency have all been very positive initiatives. Not surprisingly, each of them has tobacco control at the top of their agenda. The target of reducing tobacco addiction to 10 per cent by 2018 is to be supported.

Unfortunately, there is a profitable transnational industry that stands in the way of this reform. The few multinational tobacco conglomerates that control this deadly trade sell more than 10 million cigarettes a minute around the world. While sales might be declining here, they are booming in many low-income countries. Tobacco companies are now aggressively targeting emerging markets around the world in order to compensate for their declining sales in countries such as Australia. Unfortunately, while the people who use its products suffer, the industry itself is in very good shape. Its deep pockets mean that the industry has been able to spend millions fighting advances in tobacco control over recent decades. They might not be able to hide from the gruesome body count that their industry extracts, but they delay, obfuscate and lie.

We know from past reforms that any effort to control tobacco will be attacked from all conceivable directions. The industry has a track record of burying evidence and shredding documents that highlight the dangers of smoking. We see public relations campaigns designed to outrage the smoking public. We get so-called experts produced on demand. They manufacture controversy; they muddy the evidence. It does not matter how clear the facts are, they will stop at nothing to prevent tobacco reform. We see front groups springing up in order to support their agenda. For example, the Alliance of Australian Retailers has been telling the Australian public that this is a bill that will hurt small retailers. This is despite the fact that clear evidence published in the British Medical Journal shows very elegantly that plain packaging:

… will, if anything, modestly decrease transaction times and selection errors.

We are now seeing Philip Morris exploit a free trade agreement between Hong Kong and Australia in its new front on fighting this important reform.

The industry does not stop there. It has another weapon in its arsenal, and that is its donations to political parties. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry still does have some clout in this country. The Australian Greens do not support donations from big tobacco. Albeit belatedly, in 2004 the Australian Labor Party stopped accepting such donations. However, the Liberal and National parties continue to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in industry donations each year. I heard Senator Fierravanti-Wells recently criticise the Minister for Health and Ageing for her past dealings with big tobacco, but that criticism rings hollow while the coalition continue to benefit from the largesse of this obnoxious and despicable industry.

There is an area where the current government does merit some criticism. That is in the area of the Future Fund. The Future Fund has $150 million of Australian taxpayer funds invested in big tobacco—$46 million in British American Tobacco, $36 million in New York based Philip Morris and $26 million in Lorillard as of the end of last year. All of this is at a time when we are trying to break the hold of big tobacco. It is remarkable that the federal government has not stepped in to ensure that its own important reforms on tobacco control are matched by its policy on the Future Fund. Moving to the details of the legislation, this bill is the latest strike in the fight against tobacco related illness. We in Australia are at the forefront of reform when it comes to tobacco control in this area. We have strict regulation which prevents the advertising of tobacco products to new customers, but the one frontier that has remained open to the tobacco industry is the packets themselves. They are little billboards of nastiness, advertising their wares to passers-by—from pockets, from kitchen tables, on dashboards of cars—all round the country. Smokers do see the branding on the packets potentially dozens of times a day. This bill will remove those opportunities for tobacco companies to compete on the grounds of brand awareness and image.

When the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 comes into law it will remove the ability of tobacco manufacturers to display logos, images and promotional text on their packs and it will replace all that with a plain brown packet. Current health warnings will be enlarged and accentuated. All that will remain to the would-be tobacco marketer will be the brand name and the variant, placed on the packet in a standard position and in standard font. Under the act it will be an offence to sell a noncompliant product, with potential penalties in excess of $1 million for a wilful breach of the act by a body corporate. Under the act the packets will be tightly controlled. Packs will have to be made of cardboard, be rectangular, contain no embossing and be a drab dark brown in colour, and no trademarks will be allowed. The location and orientation of the brand and variant name will be strictly prescribed and the graphic warning will be enlarged to 70 per cent of the front of the packet.

In short, this bill aims to ensure that the packet of cigarettes is as ugly as the product itself. And it is not just action for the sake of acting; there is very good evidence that this bill will save lives. While it is true that Australia will be leading the world with this initiative, studies from around the world indicate that this reform will work. There are dozens of scientific papers that support this proposal. They indicate that plain packaging will work because it reduces the attractiveness of the product, especially to young people. It also erodes brand loyalty and makes it more difficult for tobacco companies to mislead consumers by pretending that one type of cigarette is less deadly than another. In addition, studies have found that plain packaging significantly improves the recall of the health warnings on packets. Just that one little extra reminder that smoking could kill you will be enough to help many Australians over the line to a tobacco-free life.

I am glad to say that support from the public health community has been overwhelming, as it should be. The National Preventative Health Taskforce was unequivocal in its endorsement of plain packaging. The World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control also recommends this reform as an aspect on tobacco advertising bans. As the first signatory to the framework, it is appropriate that we are the first parliament in the world to tackle this issue. We are at the forefront of change here. It is a change that is necessary and long overdue. Again, the government should be congratulated for its bravery on this issue.

We have one more reason to know that this reform will work, and that is the hysterical reaction of the industry itself. We know that they too are aware of the evidence, even as they seek to dismiss it. If they genuinely believed that this reform would not cost them customers, they would be more relaxed about it. Instead, they are fighting this war on all fronts, including with the threat of action in the High Court. I am not a lawyer. Many of the objections are of the legal and constitutional nature and I will not pretend to be able to give thorough legal advice. But I will say that a number of disinterested legal scholars have been very clear in their view that the claims made by the tobacco industry are not valid.

The industry also claims that plain packaging will create an explosion in the illicit and counterfeit tobacco smuggling market. According to the industry, more people are going to smoke lower quality products, we are going to lose excise and customs revenue and it is going to be a huge threat to the Australian community. Illicit tobacco is something we should take seriously. Users of these products do undermine the controls that we have in place. But, as with many of the warnings of the tobacco industry, we should have a degree of scepticism about these claims. We know that there are ways of dealing with these claims, and in any case they have been debunked by experts in many different areas.

Another threat by the industry is deep discounting of cigarettes, because once plain packaging has removed their ability to compete on the basis of trademarks they will therefore compete on the basis of price. But, under questioning at Senate committee hearings, the industry have already admitted that this could easily be dealt with by administering a minimum price on tobacco products. I think it is a hollow threat but, in any case, we would welcome that fight.

This bill is not the end of the road in tobacco control. There is much more to be done. We can do more in raising awareness. We can do more in regulating the contents of cigarettes. As I said earlier, we can do more in terms of our investment in the tobacco industry through the Future Fund. The Greens are also calling for an end to duty-free cigarettes at airports.

The reality is that tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, a young person will be offered a cigarette for the first time. Whether they refuse it or they reach for that first cigarette might determine the course of their life. It could mean they do not live to see their child graduate from university. It could be the difference between enjoying a well-deserved retirement with their family or spending the last days of their life gasping for breath in a hospital bed at the age of 50. There are many factors that influence that decision: what a child sees at home; what their friends will think; how their body responds to the first puff of their first cigarette. We know that legislation might not be able to change some of those factors.

But one important factor remains, and that is how a young person perceives that product. Is it cool? Is it dangerous? The fact that branding legitimises cigarette smoking means that a lot of people earn a great deal of money maximising that impact. There is an entire branch of psychology devoted to studying it, and marketers do their best to exploit it. So, in that split second, the difference between a recognisable blue logo and a plain drab brown pack of cigarettes adorned with a photo of a diseased organ could be crucial in a person's decision about whether or not to smoke. That, on its own, is reason enough to support this bill. Once again, I am very pleased to support this bill and I commend it to the Senate.