General Health Thursday April 19, 2012

Australia really wants you to quit smoking

If there’s one country that has really upped its game in terms of trying to get its citizens to stop smoking, its Australia. Towards the end of 2011, the government approved legislative changes that would make it mandatory for tobacco product packaging to be completely plain, marking the first time such a requirement has been enforced anywhere in the world. Should the UK be following their lead when it comes to an anti-smoking agenda? Or is Australia taking it too far?

The tough stance on smoking taken by Australia has been lauded by many health bodies, including the World Health Organisation, but it hasn’t exactly been well-received by many other influential groups. Most notably, tobacco firms such as Philip Morris International have spoken out against the legislation and have even begun legal proceedings against the government. Claims have been made that there is no proof that the law will reduce smoking rates and it will in fact unfairly impact sales.

Though this may be true, it’s worth noting that the very fact that tobacco companies have reacted so strongly suggests that they believe the change in legislation will mean less people are buying their cigarettes, which would mean that less people are smoking. As this is presumably what the Australian government has set out to achieve, the criticism of the legislation seems a little baseless.

Australia is not just using legislation to try and curb smoking rates. In 2009, Quit Victoria, a joint initiative with the Australian Department of Health, produced an advert called ‘Separation’, a powerful attempt to appeal to the emotional side of smokers. The question lies in whether adverts like these are a more appropriate use of government resources in this area.

The plain packaging law is the most extreme example of how governments can use legislation to try to reduce smoking rates, though it is worth saying that it is basically just a natural extension of the legislation that already exists in many countries, including in the UK, which dictates that cigarette packaging should include graphic images and warnings about the health costs of smoking. The true debate lies in how much legislation should actually be used for this purpose. Is it the role of the government to legislate people’s vices?

There is certainly weight to the argument that policies to try to encourage people to stop smoking - or perhaps more accurately discourage them from smoking - are more effective if they are more “nudge” based than forced. The concept of the “nudge” was championed by current UK health minister Andrew Lansley in 2010 when he said, perhaps a little optimistically, that “rather than nannying people we will nudge them”.

Nearly two years on, there is little evidence of a preference for “nudging” rather than “nannying”. Earlier this month, a new law came into effect that saw a ban on tobacco displays in most UK shops, in the hope that a lack of visibility would lead to a decline in sales figures. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but what is important here is the methods governments employ. Would funding be better placed in educational programs and campaigns, aiming to make people more aware of the potential costs of smoking, such as the ‘Separation’ advert created by Quit Victoria? Is it better to run positive campaigns that celebrate quitting smoking, or to run negative campaigns that denigrate smokers? Be sure to let us know your thoughts below.

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