In 2014, we wrote about the additional rules placed on the sale and consumption of tobacco across the nation, and asked the question: Will smoking ever be banned in Australia?
Now in 2019, it seems this could occur in the not-too-distant future, with a precedent now set by the North Sydney Council, whose councillors unanimously voted to ban smoking in all public places, with immediate effect.
Is the move justified on grounds of public health? Or a step too far?
While the council has defended its actions, saying that 80 per cent of residents backed the idea because it will remove both the air and litter pollution created by cigarettes, there are those who believe it is a step too far in regulating the lives of people who choose to smoke.
Smoking is something that is inherently polarising. On one hand, smokers feel heavily controlled by a ‘nanny state’, while many non-smokers are frustrated by exposure to second-hand smoke.
Australia has the strictest rules on smoking
For several years, Australia has been the world leader in regulating smoking. In 1992, we introduced laws banning the advertisement of tobacco products, and in 2012, Australia was the first country to introduce ‘plain packaging.’ The government also heavily taxes tobacco and cigarettes and now in Australia, the habit costs about $8,000 per year.
Over time, State Governments have introduced strict smoking bans in places such as restaurants, outdoor seating spaces, public transport, office buildings, children’s playgrounds, beaches and other public areas, attracting hefty fines for smokers.
But many of the regulations affecting buildings and public spaces have driven smokers to street corners, where there are limited facilities to dispose of cigarette butts. And this is exactly what the North Sydney Council now wants to eradicate, taking the bold move of banning smoking in all public spaces and public streets in the CBD.
While a lot of councils have expansive no-smoking zones, and many have considered and debated the idea of prohibition, none have gone so far as to introduce total bans.
Tamworth Regional Council has already introduced smoke-free zones and the Heart Foundation — which helped push through the North Sydney changes — is working with other councils around NSW to also change their policies. The Foundation is now making a submission to City of Melbourne council to increase the footprint of its CBD smoking ban and also to Hobart City Council, which is committed to expanding its CBD smoking ban by April 2020.
The Heart Foundation says smoking causes 51 deaths every day in Australia and the public bans go a long way to helping quitters stay quit, and “de-normalise” smoking.
But tighter restrictions have angered smokers who argue that smoking is still legal in Australia. While tobacco and cigarettes can’t be sold to anyone under the age of 18, there is no legal age for actually smoking.
There is no doubt that smoking is a recognised health problem which kills more people than AIDS, skin cancer, diabetes and road accidents combined.
Smoking is in decline
And in Australia, the range of laws introduced over the past 20 years have contributed to a decline in smoking overall. But as we have also experienced, blanket bans are rarely effective – look at the thriving market for illicit drugs.
But many other jurisdictions not just in Australia, around the world, will be watching with interest the impact of the North Sydney Council move. New Zealand is one. It has its own agenda to make the country smoke free by 2025.
In the meantime, the ban in North Sydney means that any residents and workers who smoke will need to do in places that are not public. There are no penalties in place for smokers who do the wrong thing – not yet anyway. The council will instead install signs and embark on a programme of ‘educating smokers’ with rangers patrolling areas to ensure smokers know about the rules.