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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8888

Senator FAWCETT (South Australia) (17:09): I rise to address the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 and the Trade Marks Amendment (Tobacco Plain Packaging) Bill 2011. As I said in my maiden speech in this place, I am a conservative, and that means that I believe in individual responsibility as opposed to the deadening hand of government control over individuals. However, there are times when the national interest or the greater public good means that there is a role for government to intervene.

As we look back in recent history and see how well Australia has survived the global financial crisis, we do not have to look back too long to see that the structures that the previous Treasurer, Mr Peter Costello, put in place—with his financial sector reforms to the RBA and the Securities and Investments Commission, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the ACCC—were some of the things that helped us to survive that crisis. So there are times when the government should intervene for the greater public good, and I believe that this is one of them.

Some 15,500 deaths each year in Australia, and some 55,500 admissions—and that is in New South Wales alone—are caused by tobacco-related illnesses. In 2004-05, the cost to the Australian society was $31½ billion, which is a huge cost to the society. There are many areas where that money could be put to better use—not to mention the cost to families, individuals and relationships which is due to the suffering caused by of tobacco related cancers, illness and death. On a more global scale, the World Health Organisation has put out a number of fact sheets, the most recent of which, updated in July this year, estimates that currently tobacco kills about half of its users on a worldwide basis—that is some six million people each year, including some 600,000 people dying of tobacco related disease who are not even smokers but people who have contracted cancer or associated illness just from being in the presence of smokers.

Australia, thankfully, has a good record on the world scene of leading incentives to decrease the rate of smoking. If we go back to 1945, some 72 per cent of men in Australia smoked; by 2007, only 18 per cent smoked. In 1945, some 26 per cent of women smoked; interestingly, the number of female smokers peaked in 1976, when some 33 per cent of women smoked, but by 2007 that had decreased to 15 per cent. Disturbingly, youth figures are still high: some 19 per cent on average still smoke. Even worse, of our Indigenous population, some 50 per cent, on average, still smoke—51 per cent men and 49 per cent women. So, whilst we have come a long way, in reducing smoking rates among both a demographic within our population who are easily influenced—that is, our young people—and a large proportion of our Indigenous population, we still have a long way to travel.

I can certainly look back and see the change, and I am very thankful for it. As I was looking at some of the notes and background information for this speech I recalled my time as a trainee pilot with the Defence Force, stuck in the CT-4A aircraft, which was a very small plastic bubble—we used to call it the plastic parrot—flying in the days when people could still smoke while flying an aircraft. I recall once not actually being able to see out the front of the cockpit due to the amount of smoke from my instructor who was smoking there. Thankfully, by the time I left active flying—in fact, even just earlier this year as an active reserve pilot—I found that smoking had well and truly been banned in ADF aircraft. In fact, they do not even make the aircraft which the Australian Defence Force purchases with ashtrays anymore. So, personally, I welcome the advances and the changes in attitude.

The other thing I welcome about this whole debate is that, by and large through the history of Australia, smoking reduction has been a very bipartisan effort. Both sides of politics have made a real attempt to influence the behaviours of Australians to decrease the rates of smoking because of that greater public good. I have been disturbed by some of the comments that almost accuse the coalition of having no interest in this, so I just want to put on the record some of the contributions that the coalition has made over many years, often with ALP support. There have also been many times when the ALP has initiated things, and the coalition has supported them. Right back in 1966, it was Sir Robert Menzies who brought in the first voluntary tobacco advertising code for television. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser banned the advertising of tobacco products on TV and radio in 1976. Michael Wooldridge, the Minister for Health and Family Services in 1997, launched what at the time was the largest ever national advertising campaign against smoking, with a spend of some $7 million over two years. The current Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, when he was Minister for Health and Ageing was in 2006 the first person to introduce the graphic health warnings on tobacco products. In opposition, it was the coalition who first proposed an increase in the tobacco excise in May 2009—a measure that was later adopted by the government. So I think the coalition can hold its head up as having a good track record of working constructively with the ALP on anti-smoking measures in the past, and I certainly encourage members opposite to continue that approach and make sure that we work for the best interest of the Australian people rather than try to make smoking reduction into a party political action. It is far too important for that.

The question, then, is: will it work? The fact is that we already have those graphic warnings, and some of the feedback and studies on them appear to indicate that they work. The World Health Organisation has done a number of studies not only in Western countries but also in places such as Brazil and Thailand and in other countries as well, such as Canada and Singapore. They have found that putting the graphic warnings on cigarette packets has a statistically significant impact. It is not a silver bullet, though. There are many other factors: socioeconomic factors, peer influence and age—young people are very susceptible to risk taking and doing things that are slightly rebellious, and smoking is one of these things, and there are also people who have just become addicted to the habit and find it really hard to give up. I graduated from military college with a peer who did a double major. He was looking at cancers caused by smoking, yet he was a chain-smoker. So understanding the damage caused by smoking is not necessarily incentive enough for some people to give up the habit. For some people, it has to be recognised that it is a difficult habit to give up, and I applaud the governments of both persuasions for their efforts over the years to provide support to people through education and other measures to help them break that addictive habit.

Plain packaging is probably going to be most effective on young people, who are perhaps more influenced by the attractive nature of some packaging. If you look through some of the papers that have been produced by people such as the Cancer Council of Australia, the World Health Organisation and others, there is ample evidence that tobacco companies have spent considerable time, money and effort designing packaging to attract people in certain demographics to use particular products. Some of the ways they have used internal packaging and the ability to have sub-packages, expanding the amount of advertising space, indicates that they are aware that money spent on that additional advertising—that visual appeal—is going to increase the uptake of their product, if not smoking in general.

So, even if it is not the silver bullet, this plain-packaging legislation is one more measure—and again, in the overwhelming interest of the public good, I support anything that will provide some assistance in reducing smoking rates. One area I am concerned about, though, is process. I am not raising this as a criticism of the government's bill but as a general comment about consultation with stakeholders. I have had many emails from small business owners who are concerned about the impact on their operations in the shop and their ability to control stock. I note the fact that it was only after the coalition really pushed the fact that small business had not been consulted that allowances were made for the concerns of small business owners. I note that the coalition in the other place did put forward an amendment to allow the use of a tobacco company trademark on the two smallest outer surfaces of a cigarette carton to try to alleviate some of the concerns of small business. I regret the fact that that amendment was not passed, not because it is a sop to the companies but because it supported small business, who at the end of the day are the people who generate a significant number of the employment opportunities in Australia.

One of the other areas I wish to touch on is that of unintended consequences. The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service annual report shows that Australia over the last number of years has seized a significant amount of illegal tobacco: some 743 tonnes and 217 million cigarettes. In 2010 the National drug strategy household survey report claimed that illicit tobacco in Australia is used by some 4.6 per cent of smokers. There are other figures around which show that there has been an alarming increase in the amount of illegal tobacco smoked. There has been some contention that that is a position put forward by the tobacco companies to try to get government intervention in order to make sure that they are not losing margin. Some of those figures show that the amount of illegal tobacco smoked was around 6.4 per cent in 2007, 12.3 per cent in 2009 and 15.9 per cent in 2010, equating in this report to some $1.1 billion in lost revenue. To this debate—and, as far as I am concerned, my support for the intent of reducing smoking—the revenue is a secondary issue. The primary issue here is the health outcomes for our community. If we do see an increase in the illegal trade, it may well undermine this and many others anti-smoking initiatives that both sides of politics have been supporting.

One of the reasons that the health outcomes may be worse is shown in a number of reports about the ways that illegal tobacco is marketed. The tobacco is often slightly damp to increase the weight and increase the returns to the people selling it. That dampness turns the tobacco mouldy. It is then bleached with chlorine to treat the mould, and the chlorine then turns to chlorine gas when it is inhaled. So, if people do start turning to illicit tobacco because it is cheaper, easier to procure or for some reason becomes more attractive—again, the young people have that risk-taking approach—then the health outcomes could be worsened. In parallel to these plain packaging initiatives, I would certainly encourage the government to continue adequately funding and encouragĀ­ing the activities of the Customs and Border Protection Service. I know the ATO are very concerned about making sure the government does not lose revenue, but there should be a whole-of-government approach taken to make sure that the illegal tobacco industry is really clamped down on so that it does not become an unintended consequence of the plain packaging measures.

One of the concerns the coalition has raised around this legislation is that we have not had access to the government's legal advice. The government assure us that they are on very strong ground in relation to trademarks. The concern that has been raised by the coalition and other players is whether this legislation's treatment of intellectual property and trademarks will set a precedent that will affect other areas. We can only take the government on their word that they are on strong ground. We certainly trust so, because the tobacco companies have indicated that they will be prosecuting these anti-smoking measures in the courts, and there is potential for the taxpayer to be exposed to a large cost to defend that action. We would certainly hope that that would not be money spent in vain, that the government's position would indeed be validated. As I say, we have not seen the advice, so we cannot comment on that. But we will give the government the benefit of the doubt and trust that that is the case.

In summary my position is—as evidenced by many people we know in our community—that tobacco does kill, and the greater public good is served by government intervention to make sure that users are informed, that those who are easily influenced are dissuaded and that the taxpayer's exposure to the consequences of the use of tobacco is minimised. I will not be opposing this bill.