Australian governments urged to set a date to ban cigarette retail sales

Governments must set a date for banning the sale of cigarettes through retailers including supermarkets, and find new ways of boosting revenue without relying on tobacco excise taxes, leading public health researchers say.

It comes as research published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) on Monday found 1,466 respondents (52.8%) to a Victorian Cancer Council survey agreed with phasing out the sale of cigarettes in retail outlets.

“Sometimes the public is ahead of the policy,” associate prof Coral Gartner, an international expert in tobacco control policy with the University of Queensland, said.

In a separate MJA piece also published on Monday, Gartner and her colleagues wrote it is time for governments to move beyond measures that focus on consumers such as plain-packaging laws and tobacco-harm warnings, and start focusing on supply.

There is an urgent need for “ending the regulatory exceptionalism that has maintained the legal status of tobacco products as a consumer good”, the piece says.

“Cigarettes do not meet modern consumer product safety standards,” Gartner and her colleagues wrote.

“It is normal for governments to remove unsafe products such as contaminated food, asbestos, and lead paint from the market. The successful defence of Australia’s tobacco plain packaging laws against international trade disputes demonstrates that governments have the right to introduce tobacco control measures to protect the health of its citizens, even when these measures reduce commercial profits and have an impact on international trade.”

Gartner, who is the director of the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Research Excellence on Achieving the Tobacco Endgame, told Guardian Australia while it may appear Australia is a world leader in tobacco control, due to plain packaging laws and graphic warning labels, other countries have gone further.

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The Netherlands has passed laws preventing supermarkets from selling cigarettes from 2024, New Zealand has proposed new measures that include significantly reducing the number of tobacco retail outlets and possibly removing nicotine from cigarettes, while California cities Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach ended tobacco sales on 1 January this year.

“We are expecting the New Zealand government to announce their smoke-free action plan in the next few weeks, and the policies that they have consulted on are really innovative and make Australia look like we are lagging behind,” Gartner said.

“We need to start having the same conversations in Australia now because there are details that need to be considered. We don’t want to criminalise people, and are not talking about making tobacco an illicit product, and we don’t want people with addiction having difficulty quitting and finding an illicit supply. So we need to start doing research now and consulting on acceptable alternative options.”

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A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health told Guardian Australia that there was strong evidence that comprehensive public health strategies focusing on both the supply and demand of tobacco were most likely to achieve long-term health gains, prevent the uptake of smoking and reduce smoking prevalence.

Responsibility for the retail sale of tobacco products was a matter for state territory governments, he said.

“The government will continue to work with state and territory governments to explore a range of new evidence-based measures to further reduce smoking prevalence having regard to both supply reduction and demand reduction measures,” he said.

In 2021, the Australian Council on Smoking and Health – a coalition of peak non- government health organisations – called for parties in the Western Australian state election to commit to ending tobacco sales by 2030. In 2012 the Tasmanian parliament discussed ending tobacco sales to anyone born after the year 2000, with a parliamentary committee finding no “significant legal impediment” to the proposal. Doctors in the UK have made similar appeals.

Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of premature death and disability in Australia, estimated to have killed 1.28 million Australians between 1960 and 2020. Up to two-thirds of deaths in tobacco smokers are attributed to smoking, while long-term smokers die an average of 10 years earlier than non-smokers.

The draft national preventive health strategy sets a goal of reducing smoking to below 5% by 2030, which Gartner said would not be achieved through industry self-regulation and voluntary approaches.

An epidemiologist and tobacco researcher with the Australian National University, Prof Emily Banks, said she agreed tough action to reduce access to cigarettes was needed, but said retailers did not have to wait for government reform to stop selling cigarettes.

“Supermarkets want to be seen as places that are promoting healthy products for people, like fresh fruit and vegetables, but they’re still selling these toxic products,” she said. “I think it is a really good time for those organisations to ask themselves: ‘Do we still want to do this?’.”

General Health