Tobacco conference urges governments to fund challenge of smoking burden and disadvantage

Posted 22 Oct 2015.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

All governments in the Oceania region must do more to reduce smoking rates among the disadvantaged or the life expectancy gap between haves and have-nots will widen, Cancer Council Western Australia has told a major regional conference on tobacco control.

Speaking in Perth at the Oceania Tobacco Control Conference, Director of Education and Research at Cancer Council WA, Terry Slevin, said Australia arguably has the best tobacco control policy settings in the world but access to support is inequitable.

Mr Slevin said people on low incomes, Indigenous Australians, those from a non-English speaking background, people with mental illness and other overlapping disadvantaged groups comprise the majority of Australia’s estimated 2.7 million smokers.

“Australia can be proud of its successes, with an all-time low of 12.8 per cent smoking prevalence. But with two-thirds of 2.7 million Australians at risk of dying prematurely from smoking, most of them already disadvantaged, we face a huge challenge in reducing social inequity in life expectancy.”

Mr Slevin said federal governments raised tobacco excise and state governments drew licensing fees and GST revenue from tobacco sales.

“So there is revenue there to invest in helping to ensure that effective interventions are accessible to all Australians.”

Keynote speaker and leading international health economist, Professor Frank Chaloupka from the University of Illinois, Chicago  says tobacco tax increases are one of the most effective strategies that a government can put in place to reduce smoking rates.

But Professor Chaloupka says the key issue with taxes is what is done with the revenues generated by the tax.

“Taxes are one of the most effective tools we have and lead to significant improvements in public health,” Professor Chaloupka said.

“That positive health impact is even greater when some of the revenues generated by tobacco tax increases are used to support tobacco prevention and cessation and other health promotion efforts.”

Cancer Council WA says research shows smokers have a perception that money from the government’s tax increases goes to consolidated revenue rather than directed into specific quit smoking programs.

The study by Cancer Council WA and Curtin University found smokers and recent quitters tend to blame the government for profiting financially from smoking.

In their perception, the government is not seriously interested in smokers quitting because of the supposed loss in revenues that would result.

Professor Chaloupka says his research shows that perception changes if funding is specifically directed.

“There is greater public support for tax increases when revenues are used for prevention & control programs and/or other health programs,” he said.

“The net financial impact on low income households can be positive when taxes are used to support programs targeting the poor.”

The last of four federal government tax excise increases will come into effect in September 2016.

Mr Slevin says perhaps more so than any previous point in tobacco control efforts in Australia, Cancer Councils are well aligned and working closely with the Federal government on tobacco issues.

“Of course we would always welcome boosted investment in consistent high quality social marketing efforts to further push down smoking rates.

“We want to leave no one behind in the fight against tobacco,” Mr Slevin said.

That is echoed by Professor Billie Bonevski from the University of Newcastle who says smoking rates in some population groups have changed little in over 20 years.

“There are high priority groups where stark inequalities remain in smoking prevalence rates and consequently tobacco-related disease in Australia and elsewhere.

“These include people with mental health or substance abuse issues, Indigenous people, and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups,” Associate Professor Bonevski said.

“Recent research clearly shows that tobacco control interventions that are targeted at these groups are the most effective at reducing tobacco inequalities.

“These interventions include mass media campaigns that are designed and targeted at Indigenous people who smoke, or quit smoking programs and are provided through mental health or addiction treatment services,” she said.

Cancer Council WA says those gaps in driving down smoking rates are found not only in Australia, but in other countries in the Oceania region.

“This conference has its focus very deliberately not only on Australia but on the Oceanic region, so while ongoing investment in tobacco control remains a vital priority in Australia, it is equally so for our neighbours.

“There are low and middle income countries where the tobacco industry is very directly targeting and marketing their product so we cannot be complacent as the job is far from finished,” Mr Slevin said

Laureate Professor Alan Lopez from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at The University of Melbourne says tobacco control in the region needs to be taken much more seriously.

“More than 60% of men smoke in Indonesia, and prevalences of 40-50% are common in the Pacific among men, and are also high among women in these countries,” Professor Lopez said.

“Unless we see rapid and effective rollout of tobacco control measures similar to what has worked in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere, then two in every three smokers in these populations will be killed by tobacco, losing on average about 15 years of life expectancy.

“This is almost surely likely to happen on current trends; it is not a matter of if, but when.

“Failing to prevent premature death from smoking is a failure of development policy; we should be as concerned about keeping adolescents alive and in good health until old age as we are about keeping babies alive until adolescence,” Professor Lopez said.

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