30 November 2022
By Natassia Chrysanthos, The Sydney Morning Herald
Each cigarette sold in Australia would be printed with messages such as “smoking kills” or manufactured in ugly colours under a federal government plan to combat the waning impact of plain packaging laws with the biggest nicotine reforms in a decade.
Health Minister Mark Butler has promised to “reignite the fight” against nicotine and tobacco as part of his public health agenda, unveiling several new measures to dissuade smokers as well as the start of a crackdown on vaping, following concerns that the practice is rampant among school-aged children.
Butler on Wednesday said that Australia was once a world-leader on tobacco control but “we are now a laggard”.
Warnings on tobacco products were losing their impact, he said, while vapes marketed with “pink unicorns, bubblegum flavours [and] fruit flavours” were being circulated across schoolyards.
“The former government was asleep at the wheel as vaping rates skyrocketed. Our children are paying the price today, for that division and that delay,” Butler said. “And it’s not just vaping. I’m determined to see Australia reclaim its position as a world leader on tobacco control because, quite frankly, lives are at stake.”
The raft of new tobacco control measures that the government will start working through next year will also update the graphic health warnings on all tobacco products – including on individual cigarette sticks – and require health promotion inserts in each pack or pouch.
It is not yet known exactly when the overhauled graphic warnings will appear in Australia, but Canada also plans to print health warnings on every cigarette, with the words “poison in every puff” on individual smokes by the end of next year.
“The graphic warnings on cigarette packs that were once world leading have started to lose their impact. At best those warnings are ignored, and at worst they are mocked,” Butler said.
“We know these warnings work, but when a smoker pulls a cigarette out of a pack, there is nothing at the moment to remind them of the harms that cigarettes cause. [That] is why, for the first time, the government will look to require individual cigarettes to be dissuasive by making them unattractive colours or printing warnings like ‘smoking kills’ on every individual stick.”
The government also wants to standardise the design of individual cigarettes and filters, stop the use of additives such as flavours or menthol, and limit the use of appealing names on products such as “light” or “organic”.
Butler said the measures, which were evidence-based and had precedent elsewhere in the world, would help the government achieve its target of reducing the daily smoking rate in Australia to 10 per cent by 2025 and 5 per cent by 2030. The daily smoking rate was 11.2 per cent in 2019.
Former Labor health minister Nicola Roxon – who introduced Australia’s world-leading plain packaging reforms, which came into effect 10 years ago this week – welcomed the reforms after several “lost years” on tobacco control.
But she warned vaping was a new frontier of nicotine use among Australians that required urgent intervention.
“We already know nicotine’s dangerous and it’s not being labelled. But [my alarm is] there’s all these other chemicals that people are heating and inhaling,” she said.
“We should be acting now and in a preventative way, not waiting until we see even more harm further down the track. I just think it means acting fast. This is going to be a constant battle.”
NSW Health data published this year showed 11 per cent of people aged 16 to 24-years-old reported being current vape users – more than double the number than 2020 – while in Victoria, a five-year-old boy was hospitalised in February after vaping at school and consuming high doses of nicotine and other chemicals.
State health ministers have been pushing since last year for a national approach to vaping, including strong enforcement of import bans by the Australian Border Force, after laws spearheaded by former Coalition health minister Greg Hunt made it illegal to import liquid nicotine without a doctor’s prescription but did not stem supply.
Butler said the Therapeutic Goods Administration would start a six-week public consultation process on vaping to scope changes to border controls, labelling and flavours, and product standards. He will also meet with state and territory health ministers on the issue in January.