Last week was a big week for those who think the law should have a role in helping to reduce the 6 million deaths caused each year by tobacco.
First, tobacco taxes
In 2013, the Rudd government announced a 12.5% increase in the tobacco excise to take effect over 4 years: 1 Dec 2013; 1 Sep 2014; 1 Sep 2015; 1 Sep 2016.
Scott Morrison’s 2016 budget will continue this increase for a further 4 years (2017-2020), taking the price of a pack of 25 cigarettes to around $41 in 2020.
These excise tax increases will be in addition to the usual, bi-annual indexation of excise in accordance with average weekly earnings.
As recognised by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Australia has signed, tax and price measures are a powerful, cost-effective tool for reducing tobacco consumption, particularly among young people.
Secondly, more wins on tobacco plain packaging
The European Court of Justice has upheld the right of Member States of the European Union to pass plain tobacco packaging laws that exceed the requirements for the standardisation of tobacco packaging contained in the European tobacco products directive.
The Directive includes a requirement for mandatory health warnings, comprising text and colour photographs, covering 65% of the back and front of tobacco packages (Art. 10.1).
Article 24.2 of the Directive preserves the right of member states to introduce further requirements for the standardisation of tobacco packaging “where it is justified on grounds of public health, taking into account the high level of protection of human health achieved through this Directive”.
These further measures must be proportionate, and must not be a disguised form of trade restriction.
The ruling of the Court paves the way for the UK’s tobacco plain packaging legislation (the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015 to become mandatory for all tobacco products on 21 May 2017.
Following Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 (Cth), plain tobacco packaging has become an export industry, with Ireland also adopting legislation in 2015.
California raises the minimum purchase age for tobacco
But perhaps the most interesting development is the creeping advancement of higher tobacco purchase laws for tobacco within the United States.
On 4 May 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed 2 Bills into law that confirm California’s leadership in tobacco control.
Senate Bill No 7 prohibits the sale of tobacco products in California to persons younger than 21 years.
The Bill includes an anti-pre-emption provision giving freedom to local governments to raise the minimum purchasing age even higher.
With a republican-controlled Congress hostile to public health measures, it has fallen to local and city governments, and to States, to innovate and to protect the health of their populations.
California’s action follows the lead of Hawaii and over 125 local and city governments that have passed legislation to raise the minimum purchase age for tobacco to 21. This trend is likely to continue, both in the United States, and possibly elsewhere.
The California Bill contains an exception for Military personnel in active duty who are aged over 18 but under 21 years.
This is not the first time U.S. legislatures have bent the rules to facilitate smoking by members of the US armed services.
California Senate Bill No. 5, also signed into law, expands the definition of the term “tobacco products” in the Business and Professions Code to include e-cigarettes, and requires retailers to pay a licence fee to sell e-cigarettes.
It requires all cartridges for e-cigarettes to be in child-resistant packaging;
It also extends the smoke-free controls applicable to cigarettes in California, to e-cigarettes – a regrettable omission in the Public Health (Tobacco) Amendment (E-cigarettes) Act 2015 (NSW).
The California Bill also prohibits selling or advertising or furnishing e-cigarettes to persons younger than 21 years.
Time to raise the minimum purchase age for tobacco in NSW?
Raising the minimum purchasing age for tobacco is a sensible next step towards a tobacco-free generation that is healthier and more productive.
Higher minimum purchasing age laws make sense, since few smokers begin smoking or become addicted to nicotine beyond the vulnerable mid to late teens and early twenties.
A 2013 study of smoking initiation rates in New Zealand confirmed that while initiation after age 24 is rare, the highest initiation rates occur among those aged 15-21 years. Over a four-year period, the rate of smoking initiation for those aged 15-17, 18-19, and 20-24 was 14.2%, 7.0%, and 3.1%, respectively.
An expert Committee of the Institute of Medicine concluded that raising the minimum purchasing age would substantially reduce smoking prevalence and smoking-related mortality, given the numerous life transitions young adults experience between 18 and 20 years.
It could also help to improve foetal, maternal and infant health, by reducing the numbers of young parents smoking.
The Tasmanian Government has released a 5-year strategic plan for health that includes raising the minimum legal smoking age to 21 or 25 as an option for consideration.
Such laws could help to reduce health inequalities. For example, according to Tasmania’s Council of Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity, more than 33% of Tasmanian teenage pregnant women are smokers (2013 figures).
Raising the minimum purchase age for tobacco would not be costly to implement, although resources should be budgeted for its enforcement, and this includes close monitoring and evaluation of its net effects.
Think about it. Will there be any parents, including smoking parents, who wish their child had been able to buy smokes on their 18th birthday?
Conversely, how many 30 year olds – facing the economic challenges of life, including breaking into the property market – will be thankful they missed the bullet of nicotine addiction and aren’t now making generous weekly donations to Australia’s tobacco giants?
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