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IN the early days of the ACT Legislative Assembly, then Health Minister, Wayne Berry led the push on anti-tobacco legislation and messaging. His leadership made the ACT the lead jurisdiction on tobacco policy.
The ACT remained a leader in tobacco policy through the Carnell and Stanhope governments.
However, in recent years the ball has been dropped with the ACT the only jurisdiction to have not implemented tobacco-free areas at public-transport waiting areas. In tobacco terms, Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris can “make the ACT great again”.
She has demonstrated a renewed leadership in preventive health. Her discussion paper, “Smoke-Free ACT Public Transport Waiting Areas“, provides an opportunity for Canberrans to comment from now until World Health Day on April 7. This discussion paper puts the case for the ACT to catch up to other jurisdictions.
Some might be tempted to point out that the ACT has the lowest smoking rate of any jurisdiction in Australia. However, the National Health Performance Authority in October, 2013, pointed out that in Sydney North Shore and Beaches 94 per cent of people were non-smokers compared to 87 per cent of Canberrans. Perhaps this is a better comparison as smoking in rural and regional areas still remains higher than in the cities. On the latest figures, more than 90 per cent of Canberrans are non-smokers.
Smoking tobacco remains the cause of one of the most preventable chronic conditions causing lung and other cancers, cardiovascular and other illnesses.
For non-smokers, exposure to passive smoking can have a similar impact. The ANU’s Prof Emily Banks examined more than 200,000 people aged over 45 in a cohort study on tobacco that concluded: “In Australia, up to two-thirds of deaths in current smokers can be attributed to smoking”.
The report, which was published in late 2014 in the prestigious journal “BMC Medicine”, also pointed out the dangers of passive smoking and that: “Current smokers are estimated to die an average of 10 years earlier than non-smokers”. It is the only legal substance worldwide that, when used as directed, cuts a decade off the life of two thirds of its users.
Even those who characterise the proposal as “nanny state” will recognise that reduction in passive smoking is a protection of the personal liberties of others.
The same “nanny state” accusers regularly ignore that the community pays for the hospitalisation and other (very expensive) treatment for smokers for lung and other cancers as well as cardiovascular disease. Our personal freedoms ought not to discriminate against someone needing treatment for smoking any more than against a motorbike rider. Even the statistical likelihood for the need for treatment is clear.
As the community will have to pay for the outcome, it is appropriate that our elected leaders set regulations in place to mitigate against the increase in shared community costs.
There is the issue of personal responsibility. There is also an important government responsibility to ensure that the healthy choice is the easiest choice. The Nuffield Bioethics Board in Britain considered this issue in “Public health: ethical issues” and argued an important role for good government “stewardship”. They specifically identified smoking in public places for government intervention.
The National Tobacco Strategy 2012-2018 recommends that “state and territory governments adopt policies that restrict smoking outdoors where people gather or move in close proximity, including bus stops and taxi ranks”. Minister Fitzharris is moving just before the expiration of the strategy.
A strong piece of legislation was enacted during the last Assembly allowing the Health Minister to simply declare these areas as smoke free. Fitzharris has the power to act (subject to the unlikely possibility of the declaration being disallowed by the Assembly). Consultation in late 2015 identified that only 9 per cent of people opposed this sort of measure.
However, the Minister has decided on a further consultative process to give the community a couple of months to prepare. More than generous. World Health Day will be a good day to make the declaration. It is time to follow Wayne Berry’s leadership and make the ACT the leading jurisdiction on fighting tobacco.