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Tasmania’s health minister, Michael Ferguson (above, from his Facebook page), has been dealt a damaging setback by the cabinet, which refused to endorse his plan to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 or 25.

The decision leaves the government’s preventive health strategy, of which the smoking measure was the key element, in tatters. It is also a blow to the Minister’s personal authority and to the government’s credibility in the crucial health portfolio.

Australian Bureau of Statistics health surveys show that between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the number of current smokers in Tasmania aged 15 to 24 increased by 6.7%, though continuing to drop in all other age groups.

The proposal was strongly advocated in the government’s ‘Healthy Tasmania’ discussion paper, released by the Minister last December. It quoted American research showing that 90% of adult daily smokers reported their first use of cigarettes before reaching the age of 19, and 100% by 21.

Mr Ferguson’s paper said the city of Needham in Massachusetts raised the smoking age to 21 in 2005. Since then, tobacco use among high school students had dropped by almost half and the overall rate of frequent tobacco use had fallen by 62%.

In launching the paper, the Minister said raising the age would also reduce the opportunity for teenagers to obtain their cigarettes from slightly older friends who could legally buy them ‒ which, he said, was the way many young people begin to smoke.

In May, in response to my analysis of the ABS data, he said the measure would target both the most at-risk age group for smoking uptake and the key problem of secondary supply to teens.

‘Reducing the uptake of young smokers is a priority for the Hodgman Liberal government as part of our Health Tasmania plan,’ Mr Ferguson said in a medial release. ‘That is why the government has put forward a proposal to raise the smoking age to 21 or 25.’

The measure was a reasonable compromise between doing nothing and the smoke-free generation proposal put by Windermere MLC Ivan Dean, which would have ended eventually in complete tobacco prohibition. Some doctors and others enthusiastically promoted the Dean proposal; tobacco retailers and cigarette manufacturers wanted no change.The Liberal Party has been attacked for continuing to accept donations from tobacco companies.

While the results of the ABS surveys are not certain ‒ no survey results can be ‒ they serve as a warning that continuing reform is needed if smoking rates are to continue to fall. Several European countries have found that their smoking rates, in the absence of ongoing determined reform, have reached a plateau. The ABS data raise the possibility that this could be happening here. If it is, it will be the cause of thousands of avoidable premature deaths among people now in their teens and younger.

No successful anti-smoking strategy ‒ as our has been up to now ‒ can work well unless it utilises all the tools reasonably available to it. This includes formal behaviour-change and health-promotion programs, such as those run by the Cancer Councils and the Heart Foundation.

But much of the progress ‒ and arguably much more ‒ has come from policy and law changes which have cost the government nothing. These have included restrictions on smoking in public places and workplaces, and bans on smoking in cars which contain children.

One way of looking at the impact of these changes is to realise how nearly impossible it now is to be a chain-smoker. Unless someone remains in their own home all the time, or spends their entire lives outside, the opportunities to chain-smoke no longer exist.

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