Not too long ago in Australia, ashtrays were commonplace in shopping plazas, on restaurant tables and even on office desks. Gradually, smoking has evolved from being a common and acceptable habit to one that is synonymous with compromised health, with the number of smokers falling from around 33% in 1985 to 12.9% in 2013. With trends continuing downward, could a smoke-free society be in our future?
It’s certainly not radical to invoke the imagery of a smoke-free society – many mainstream publications have previously encouraged dialogue around the phasing out of tobacco, and we seem to be increasingly comfortable pushing it further away from our institutions, such as universities and prisons.
With fewer young Australians taking up smoking than ever before, according to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, the number of smokers among us is set to shrink regardless of further changes to public policy.
AIHW also report, “Adolescent smoking is also at a record low, with only 3.4% of people aged 12–17 years smoking daily.” We’ve done our own digging, and can reveal similar results.
There is little doubt the law has had a huge impact on the way we think about tobacco, and not just with the punitive tax on consumption and the introduction of plain packaging. Between 2006 and 2010, legislation was passed around the country that banned smoking in enclosed public spaces. Most prominently the law prohibited tobacco smoking in pubs and clubs, with even smokers showing appreciation in surprising numbers. Additionally, all states and territories (except for the NT) have banned smoking in vehicles with children.
A report from Public Health Research & Practice dug into some of the key events occurring over the last few years that may have impacted declining smoking rates with Aussie youths. They highlighted:
- 2000: Smoking banned inside restaurants
- 2006: Health warnings on tobacco packaging
- 2007: Smoke-free spaces in pubs, clubs, nightclubs and casinos.
- 2009: Ban on smoking in cars with children.
- 2012: Ban on smoking in (certain) public, outdoor spaces.
- 2012: Plain packaging introduced.
Source: Factors influencing reductions in smoking among Australian adolescents, Jan 2016
With smoking widely recognised as a public health threat, you could expect cigarettes to be relegated to private spaces only; perhaps the future will see streets and parks completely free of tobacco smoke.
Many of us are all well-versed in the negative health impacts of tobacco use. Lung cancer is still one of our most preventable cancers, with quitnow.gov.au noting 84% of cases in males can be attributed to tobacco, as can 77% of female cases. Lung cancer remains one of our leading causes of death, with respiratory conditions like emphysema also a major disease burden.
Smoking also strips 10 years off an individual’s life expectancy. Though it would take decades to reap the benefits, a smoking rate of zero would be a significant boon to the well-being of would-be smokers, and take significant stress off our healthcare system. Speaking of which…
Although the economics of tobacco are murky territory for most people, we can determine a rough societal cost based on several sources. Healthcare costs related to smoking gross $1.9 billion per year, but workforce absenteeism, lost productivity and social costs due to tobacco are estimated to be significantly higher.
While the exact method to put a price on smoking is debatable, the accepted wisdom is that smoking costs us more as a society than it makes. Indeed, 2011/12 budget papers reveal that $5.45 billion was collected in tobacco excise that year, according to the Herald Sun; a figure that was supposed to increase with the 12.5% rise in tobacco excise.
At an individual level, it’s a case of all loss and no profit. This multi-variable calculator from Quit.org.au is a terrific tool in showing the financial burden of lighting up on a regular basis. Even for someone who only smokes a single cigarette each day, you’re still paying hundreds of dollars per year.
It’s clear then: a surprising economic windfall awaits if you decide to quit smoking.
Cigarettes are not just bad for human health – they are toxic to the environment, contaminating land and waterways by releasing cadmium, arsenic and lead, not to mention their potential for causing house fires and bushfires in our hot, dry climate. Clean Up Australia estimates that around 7 billion cigarette butts a year are discarded irresponsibly in this country alone, accounting for 17% of the litter collected in their 2004 audit. The idea of eradicating an environmental pollutant that poses serious fire risks must look very attractive to policymakers.
So, is a smoke-free society possible?
While forcibly outlawing tobacco prematurely might encourage black market operators to prevent abstinence, a progressive and organic move towards smoke-free policies is already underway. Attitudes continue to change, and there is less resistance to legislative moves to mandate smoke-free environments. A smoke-free future isn’t an overreach of imagination, especially since many Australians (including many smokers) are in agreement.