New Zealand this week banned smoking for the next generation.
Those under 14 will never be allowed to legally smoke in their lifetime. Australia is not far behind with health experts calling on the government to also completely ban retail cigarette sales to curb smoking. Yet these experts and the Australian government don’t seem to realise that banning goods off the market only makes them spread like wildfire.
Public health experts liken banning retail cigarette sales to banning things like lead paint or asbestos, but this analogy fails to take into account a simple truth: no one has ever been addicted to lead paint or asbestos. But a majority of smokers reach a point where they are no longer smoking recreationally but out of a dependence on nicotine.
We’re already seeing the adverse effects of tobacco regulation. Due to exorbitant prices mandated by the Federal Government, the black market for cigarettes is thriving. A KPMG study estimated 20.7 per cent in 2019 of total cigarette sales are coming from the black market (up from 14.1 per cent in 2018). It is already clear that Australians are motivated by a cost incentive to stray from retail cigarettes. When the rest of the population is simply told they cannot have cigarettes, the result will be an innumerable amount of people seeking to feed their addiction by illegal means.
Smoking addictions in Australia disproportionately affect those in low socio-economic areas. The National Cancer Control Indicators found that of daily smokers, 40 per cent belonged to the two lowest socio-economic status (SES) groups. The financial burden of smokers who consume a packet a day is large. It is also clear from this data that economic incentives simply do not work, as those who have the least disposable income in Australian society are the biggest group of smokers.
It’s time to face the ugly truth: it doesn’t matter how expensive you make them, how much you crackdown on imports of them, or even if you ban them — as long as they are the most desirable choice to satisfy a nicotine addiction, cigarettes are here to stay. The market has shown time and time again that it functions better at directing people away from cigarettes than the government ever could.
Thankfully, there is a safe and effective alternative to traditional cigarettes: e-cigarettes. Clinical studies have shown time and time again that e-cigarettes can be used to wean smokers off of traditional cigarettes and nicotine entirely. They are vastly more effective than other nicotine products such as patches or gum. A study by Tobacco in Australia found daily use of e-cigarettes in young adults increased by 20-30 per cent, depending on age bracket, between 2013 and 2019. With current use rates skyrocketing 2-3 times in frequency.
They’ve done so despite numerous setbacks, from the banning of nicotine liquids all the way through to the complete ban of retail sale of e-cigarettes.
Since October, smokers need to have a prescription to buy nicotine e-cigarettes anywhere — adding needless bureaucracy. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) also stated that ‘nicotine vaping products should not be the first smoking cessation approach you try’. Individuals must have unsuccessfully tried other methods of smoking cessation such as patches or gum, and even then the doctor still has discretion and no obligation to provide you with a prescription for e-cigarettes.
The solution then is not only clear, but has already been implemented in countries across the world. In the UK, individuals can buy, sell, and use e-cigarette devices as they please with little restriction on who can market the products and where they can be used. It is time Australia met the global standard to create meaningful action against smoking rather than slapping the wrist of Australians slightly harder every year and taking home $17.4 billion in excise revenue alone.
The end goal then should not be prohibition but rather education and proliferation of viable alternatives. Many Australians now have no legal access to nicotine vaping liquid within Australia and if cigarettes are banned, would be left with alternatives that have a track record of not performing. It is time for Australia to turn away from its punitive approach on ‘poor’ consumer behaviour to embracing the market approach that has had such wild success across the globe.
Damon Miles is a Business Law graduate from Curtin University and Mannkal Economic Education Foundation Alumni. He is currently completing his Juris Doctorate at the University of Western Australia.
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