DESPITE the mountains of information warning us of the dangers of smoking, young Australians are lighting up in droves.
They’re not old enough to legally buy a pack of cigarettes but almost 60,000 Australian children aged 15-17 are regular smokers.
Although smoking rates have declined over recent decades, young people were the most likely to have increased the amount they smoked in the past year, a new report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has found.
Five per cent of children aged 12-15 smoke according to another study, the Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drugs Survey, and experts say the number of young people still taking up the deadly habit means a lot more needs to be done.
All in the packaging
Apart from the usual peer pressure, Cancer Council Australia president Professor Ian Olver says tobacco companies are successfully exploiting loopholes in advertising restrictions to hook new, young smokers.
“Clearly, there’s enough promotion still to attract young people,” he says. “If you made a movie about Winston Churchill you’d expect him to have a cigar but why does Sigourney Weaver smoke in Avatar? There’s still product placement in movies.”
There is also pack design intended to lure impressionable young customers. Tobacco companies and their deep pockets are fighting plans to make Australia the first country to introduce plain packaging from next year, claiming it infringes on their intellectual property.
Quit Victoria executive director Fiona Sharkie says it would be the most significant public health reform in decades: “If plain packaging stops young people (smoking), it’s a good thing.”
Tobacco giants fight on
Ms Sharkie says smoking rates have never been lower but there are still too many young people smoking.
“Smoking is part of socialisation. If your friends don’t smoke you probably won’t and if your parents don’t smoke, you probably won’t,” she says. “But if you’re with a group who smoke, you’ll try it.”
The price of a pack of 30 cigarettes rose by more than $2 after the Federal Government imposed a 25 per cent tax hike a year ago, taking the retail price to more than $16 per pack. It is expected that smoking rates will fall further as a result.
Mr Olver says, “Every 10 per cent that you lift the price can drop a country’s smoking rate by between three and four per cent.”
Anyone under the age of 35 would never have seen an advertisement for cigarettes on TV and children under 12 are the best advocates for quitting, says Ms Sharkie: “They are well aware of the health effects and they nag their parents about stopping smoking.”
Anne Jones, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, says apart from plain packaging, all tobacco advertising and promotion should be banned, as should the additives that make cigarettes more palatable to new smokers.
“But the industry is fighting the government on every front, all to protect their own commercial interests so they can continue selling an addictive, lethal product that’s killing 15,000 Australians each year,” ms Jones says.
Because so many different types of outlets sell cigarettes, from supermarkets to convenience stores, access is easy and compliance monitoring extremely difficult. Ms Jones says about 20 per cent of teenagers are buying smokes from sales assistants who fail to check their identification.
By Sharon Labi
Sunday Herald Sun