Are Australia's draconian smoking laws a failure?

Senator Leyonhjelm questions the latest data, as well as asking whether it is causing an increase in black market criminal activity. He also questions whether public health do-gooders have attempted to influence foreign policy

Senator LEYONHJELM: My question is to Senator Nash, representing the Minister for Health. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that, for the first time in over two decades, the daily smoking rate did not significantly decline over the most recent three-year period, from 2013 to 2016. This is the first three-year period during which plain packaging has been in force throughout.

Over this period, tobacco excise rose by more than 50 per cent. Yet in the same period smoking has fallen significantly in numerous countries, including the US and the UK, where there has been no plain packaging and excise is much lower but e-cigarette have been legal. Given the evidence, will the government abandon plain packaging and amend its poisoned standard to treat e-cigarettes like cigarettes? Or do we in Australia know better than the rest of the world?

Senator NASH: I thank the senator for his question and for some advance notice of it. Tobacco remains a leading cause of preventable death and disability in Australia, with smoking estimated to kill almost 19,000 Australians a year and with a total annual cost to the nation of $31½ billion. This government remains committed to tobacco plain packaging as a legitimate public health measure that is consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations. Such a measure has contributed to reducing the smoking rates substantially over the past decade. Despite a slowing in the decline in smoking prevalence rates —

The PRESIDENT: A point of order, Senator Leyonhjelm?

Senator Leyonhjelm: Yes, Mr President, a point of order just in relation to accuracy. I just quoted some data which contradicts what the minister has just said.

The PRESIDENT: That is a debating point, Senator Leyonhjelm; it’s not a point of order.

Senator NASH: I am referring to advice received. Despite a slowing in the decline in smoking prevalence rates among daily smokers aged 14 years and over, progress has been made amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is good to note. Ongoing tobacco interventions are critical to ensuring that the prevalence of smoking in Australia continues to decline.

The government’s taking a precautionary approach to e-cigarettes and is continuing to examine the regulatory framework governing e-cigarettes in Australia. Unlike any e-cigarette product, all smoking cessation therapy products lawfully available for commercial sale in Australia have been evaluated for safety and efficacy and have been registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Though the TGA found that there was insufficient evidence to support the widespread use of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation or harm reduction, the government has funded eight grants and committed nearly $6½ million in funding for research into e-cigarettes.

Further to this, I understand that the senator currently has an inquiry into the matter, which is due to report on 13 September. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that inquiry.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Leyonhjelm, a supplementary question.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Government officials have been arrested in connection with a tobacco-smuggling ring, at a time when the excise on cigarettes is 61c a stick. Minister, can you recall reports of tobacco smuggling a decade ago, when the excise was 23c a stick? In a fortnight, you’re lifting the excise to 70c. Will this lead to more or less tobacco smuggling?

Senator NASH: I can advise the Senate that the government provided $7.7 million in the 2016–17 budget to expand the Tobacco Strike Team and will introduce strengthened offences for illicit tobacco. The Tobacco Strike Team works to disrupt and dismantle criminal groups engaged in the supply of illicit tobacco to Australia. The government’s confident that the Tobacco Strike Team’s work is having an impact on the illicit market, based on the significant operational success, particularly in terms of seizures. I should add, however, that there is no reliable evidence that increases in excise on tobacco products have influenced the illicit tobacco market in Australia.

The PRESIDENT: A final supplementary question, Senator Leyonhjelm.

Senator LEYONHJELM: I understand that, following the Russian military incursions into Ukraine in 2014, our health department argued that Australia’s response should be restrained, given Ukraine’s WTO case against Australia’s plain packaging laws. Can you confirm this? Did our government link plain packaging with other foreign affairs matters in discussions with the Ukrainian government prior to Ukraine dropping their case in 2015?

Senator NASH: Australia has firmly and consistently supported the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and our support has not been linked to other issues, including the WTO plain packaging dispute.

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