Australian public health officials are sure to be paying keen attention to New Zealand's ambitious plans to slash the number of smokers to less than five per cent of the population by 2025.
A suite of measures, including an outright ban on selling tobacco to anyone aged under 14 in 2025 for life, are expected to be introduced to the NZ parliament in 2022.
"People aged 14 when the law comes into effect [in 2025] will never be able to legally purchase tobacco," the Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, said on Thursday.
The Ardern government also plans to slash the number of retailers licenced to sell cigarettes in a bid to limit supply.
Once these measures are adopted New Zealand will have the second toughest anti-smoking laws in the world.
All of the arguments being mounted by the Ardern government in favour of its plans apply to Australia in spades.
Reductions in smoking rates in New Zealand, which has been committed to a "Smokefree 2025" goal since 2012, have lagged behind Australia up until now. Around one in four (25 per cent) of New Zealanders had smoked in the year 2000. That fell to one in six (just under 17 per cent) in 2012 and to one in eight (or 12.5 per cent) by 2019. In 2000 20 per cent of Australian adults smoked. That had fallen to 13.3 per cent by 2013 and to 11.6 per cent in 2019.
Where New Zealand does have the edge over Australia is in lowering indigenous smoking rates. While that is down to 31 per cent health authorities say nicotine contributes significantly to the eight year life expectancy gap between Indigenous New Zealanders and the broader community. Dr Verrall said tobacco products accounted for two-and-a-half years of this.
Australia's Indigenous smoking rate is scandalously high at 43 per cent.
According to the Department of Health "tobacco smoking is the leading preventable cause of ill health and death for both indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians".
The Department's latest Tobacco Smoking snapshot states that 9.3 per cent of the total burden of disease in Australia in 2015 was due to smoking and that almost three quarters of the disease caused by smoking was fatal. An estimated 21,000 deaths were attributable to tobacco consumption in that year.
These figures show that tobacco smoking is an even bigger threat to public health than the coronavirus pandemic and that, like COVID-19, it is something that can be managed and contained if sufficient resources are made available.
And, again as with many COVID-19 hotspots, there is a very strong correlation between smoking and smoking-related illness and a person's socio-economic, educational and employment status.
While Australia has done well in reducing its smoking rates over the last two decades the curve is beginning to flatten. While the percentage of smokers fell by 4.2 per cent from 17.5 per cent to 13.3 per cent between 2007 and 2013 it only fell by 1.7 per cent to 11.6 per cent between 2013 and 2019.
Although this may, at least in part, be due to the law of diminishing returns still more needs to be done. While the 2021 decision to ban the sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine without a prescription was an excellent precautionary measure they, along with vapes, are still serving as gateways to smoking through back door channels. "Chop-Chop" or black market tobacco has also become a billion-dollar industry.
Despite strong evidence policies such as plain paper packaging and the sponsorship of quit smoking initiatives have worked well, there could be merit in following New Zealand's lead and setting a date by which Australia should be tobacco-free.
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