Is plain packaging going far enough?
Attorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management Nicola Roxon holds a pack of cigarettes for the media after a press conference regarding the plain packaging of tobacco, at the High Court, on Tuesday 17 April 2012.
I don’t want to seem a wowser, a square or a prude, although I am in fact all three of those things, but I despise smoking. I despise it even more than I hated watching the Nyan Cat video for a solid hour, and that’s saying something. (The lengths of research I go to for this column!)
In Japan, it’s considered rude to smoke in public. You won’t see people lighting up on the pavement, outside their offices the way you will here. You won’t see them jamming a ciggie in their mouths as soon as they get off the train, because they’re so pathetically addicted that they couldn’t bear to be without tobacco for a whole hour. Instead, you’ll see Japanese smokers clustered together in certain designated ciggie-leper colonies, many of them glassed off, with a forest of ashtrays so that the butts aren’t simply chucked randomly onto every public street the way they are here.
The Japanese taboo against smoking in public is so strong that as well as subsidising many of these open-air smoking areas, Japan Tobacco has even run a public education campaign to try and teach smokers the appropriate etiquette for their habit. The posters are beautifully designed, and some of them are even quite funny. It’s polite, it’s considerate, and I only wish Australia had adopted the same taboo.
You might conclude from this that Japan is a wonderland of social civility that places public health on an appropriately lofty pinnacle – until you entered any bar. Without any restrictions whatsoever on smoking in private areas, every Japanese bar, and most restaurants, still contain that ominous fug of smoke that most of us can remember from the bad old days before regulation here. My recent trip to Tokyo was a throwback to the days of my throat feeling dry and scaly, and my clothes stinking to high heaven the following morning. The practice also condemns anyone who works in a bar to a lifetime of passive smoking, of course. But hey, at least they’re not being so rude as to smoke in public!
Both the Japanese taboo and the Australian regulations are correct. Smoking in the open air is by far the lesser of the two evils, of course, and it seems odd to have focused on that as the unforgivable rudeness, but the Japanese are still right that it’s inconsiderate and a source of litter. Whereas our regulations in enclosed spaces have transformed Australia’s watering-holes into pleasant places – or relatively pleasant places, in some instances. And they’ll undoubtedly save lives among those who work in the nation’s bars and clubs.
I can’t wait until smoking in outdoor dining areas is banned around the country as well, because the current restrictions have made all outdoor areas intolerable by funnelling smokers into them, as Bruce Guthrie recently argued. With one exception: I reckon you should be allowed to smoke in pokie rooms – let’s make them as intolerable as possible. You should also be allowed to skateboard and practice the tuba in them.
All of this regulation begs the question: if you can’t smoke in public and you can’t smoke in bars, then where can you smoke? The answer is simple. At home. That’s it. And if you have kids, perhaps not even there, at least anywhere where they’ll breath the smoke in. Perhaps in certain designated smoking areas, rooms with powerful extractor fans or bits of public space that have been cordoned off so you can indulge your folly.
But nobody should ever have to involuntarily inhale cigarette smoke. If you are mad enough to persist with the habit despite the implications for your health, fine – knock yourself out, or emphysema yourself out, if you must. There’s no law against, say, punching yourself in the face, an activity that will probably cause less long-term damage to your health than smoking. That’s a sufficient quantity of the individual liberty that you smokers perpetually whinge about. Because your liberty only extends to the point where makes others to suffer along with you.
A smoke particle from that cigarette you simply couldn’t resist smoking might be the one that condemns somebody else to lung cancer, or any of the other litany of illnesses that smoking causes. Why should that be permitted? It’s the equivalent of you shooting up heroin, and everyone around you having to jab themselves with a couple of as well.
Let’s not forget that smoking shouldn’t be legal in the first place. Oh, I’m not suggesting an outright ban now that the horse has bolted with the Marlboro Man atop it. But surely if we knew then what we know now, cigarettes would never have been allowed onto the market. We aren’t even allowed to buy energy drinks that contain too much caffeine, so the current legal status of a product that harms every internal organ is an even more glaring anachronism than the monarchy.
Rather than outlawing them, the government should take any means necessary to make cigarettes as unpopular and difficult to indulge in as possible. Which is why the cigarette companies’ opposition to plain packaging of their product simply must be defeated. I’m sure it will be when the High Court rules – it seems thoroughly absurd to argue that by restricting what they can display on their packets, the government is actually acquiring property from the tobacco companies.
The argument seems all the more bizarre when you consider that if the government is actually acquiring the trademarks, as their opponents are claiming, and has to pay just compensation to do so, then the Department of Health would own every cigarette trademark. Consequently, it could stop them being used. Rather than calling their precious little tubes of pre-packaged death Winfield or Marlboro, they’d just have to market them all as Generic Cigarettes. Is that what British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and my old pals at Japan Tobacco actually want?
There are other spurious arguments on the table, like the one that the laws will increase black-market imports of tobacco – perhaps, but surely not more than the current hefty taxes do? And then there’s the curious World Trade Organisation action being brought by Ukraine, who hasn’t actually traded tobacco with Australia since 2005. And while I don’t have much insight into international trade law, I’m pretty confident that public health interests will prevail.
I’d like to see the government doing even more to discourage smoking than it is now. I’d like to see a law that puts up the price of a packet of cigarettes by 10% a year, every year, forever. As it does with other dangerous products, the government should attempt to protect us from our own short-sightedness. But when these products can and do harm other people who are sensible enough not to smoke themselves, the crackdown should be maintained until addicts are puffing away exclusively in their own backyards. And even then, they’d better make sure the neighbours aren’t breathing in the smoke.