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Roxon denies Big Tobacco the prospect of any smokescreen

Nicola Roxon cigarette packets

Nicola Roxon unveils the new plain cigarette packs. Picture: Alan Pryke Source: The Australian

MANY smokers and, at a guess, pretty much every cufflink-wearing executive from the big tobacco companies have a habit of posturing as macho libertarians.

They argue that cigarettes are a legal product, smoking is a matter of choice, and that when it comes to telling us how we can live our lives, the nanny state can go stick it in its pipe and smoke it.

This is all fine, up to a point. And that point is when smokers get sick and automatically assume that it is the job of the health system – that is, the taxpayers – to step in and cover the cost of their collapsed lungs, clogged arteries and triple bypasses.

It is a logically inconsistent position and, frankly, quite a pathetic one. If smokers and the tobacco industry are going to be hairy-chested about the manner in which they live their life, they should also be held to account for the manner of their death.

I write that not as some clean-living puritan, but one of those poor sad dills who has become addicted to this stupid drug, but who is now happily (and hopefully) in the final stages of a victorious battle against nicotine, setting aside last week’s beer-fuelled regression at the office Christmas party.

You hear smokers say all the time that the amount of tax levied on their habit is more than enough to cover the cost to the health system of smoking-related death and disease, and lost productivity through the premature departure of the nicotine-addicted from this mortal coil.

The reality is somewhat different. The cost of smoking to the health system alone is a very hefty $31.5 billion a year. Annually, some 15,000 of us go to meet our maker many years before we otherwise would. Think back to early 2010 when then prime minister Kevin Rudd jacked up the price of a packet of fags by 25 per cent a packet. Even that whopping increase only raised $5 billion, which is just one-sixth the annual illness bill from our vulgar little habit.

The tobacco industry has been having a pretty ordinary time of it of late, as all those personal choice arguments vanish in a puff of acrid smoke as even smokers like this one start to admit there is no logical defence available for smoking or the public costs associated with smoking.

As a final last-gasp action, the tobacco industry has been mounting a spurious civil libertarian argument against plain packaging, featuring a matronly nanny-state lady displayed at tobacconists and corner store cigarette counters. The campaign has failed to ignite the outrage the tobacco industry would have envisaged because even smokers know deep down that what they are doing is quite dumb.

As Health Minister until yesterday’s reshuffle, Nicola Roxon carved out a deserved reputation as the nation’s wowser-in-chief with her one-woman campaign against alcopops and other forms of fun. Suitably, one of her final actions in the portfolio ahead of the reshuffle was to meet with veteran American anti-tobacco campaigner Matthew Myers, who helped US states claim about $206 billion in healthcare compensation from tobacco firms.

Myers’ argument is that if tobacco companies are knowingly peddling a product which kills people – and they clearly are – it should follow that they contribute to the social cost of the carnage they unleash.

It is an aggressive move by Roxon to invite Myers to advise the Federal Government on how it could take similar action here. She made it clear yesterday that she was delighted at the prospect of learning from the US experience.

“I am looking forward to having him here to pick his brains on the strategies that they used in the US to hold tobacco companies accountable for the costs that governments pick up from tobacco-related disease,” she told the Herald Sun.

If the Federal Government goes down that path it could wrong-foot the tobacco companies by opening up a new flank in the legal battle, which at this stage has two of the biggest tobacco firms taking the feds in a bid to suspend the introduction of the drab, olive-green packaging, which will turn thousands of people, kids especially, off cigarettes.

By fighting back with legal action of its own, for deliberately peddling a product that claims thousands of lives a year, the once-mighty tobacco industry could be stretched to breaking point. At the risk of being disloyal to my vice, all I’d say to that is: cop that, big tobacco.

If any car manufacturer knowingly sold vehicles that ran off the road, or a pharmaceutical company sold painkillers that actually made you feel worse, they would be put out of business. There is a word for this kind of conduct and it is negligence.

In the case of tobacco it is made worse because the word negligence implies behaviour that is inadvertent or accidental. Tobacco companies know exactly what they are doing – helping people hasten their deaths. And in the same way that smokers can’t logically rabbit on about individual rights while still expecting the community to pay for the damage they do to themselves, tobacco companies can’t fairly shirk the social cost of the deaths and diseases for which they are also responsible.

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