Addressing the over-supply of tobacco: How tobacco retail reform is essential to drive smoking rates down further

13 March 2019 | Christina Watts

Cigarette packet

When I was just 6 years old, my Grandfather passed away after many years of suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, caused by smoking.  My very few memories of him were of him bed ridden, requiring the support of an oxygen machine to breathe for years on end. I barely knew my Grandfather, and sadly this was not my last encounter with the horrific effects of smoking.

Around 20 years later, someone very dear to me faced a similar tragic end to their life due to a life of smoking. This was my Great Aunt, Helen, whom was like a Grandmother to me for many years. This time, I was old enough to comprehend the horrendous suffering that Helen went through each day. Helen had multiple strokes and eventually lost functioning of her mind and body before she died at age 74.

These two people were lost prematurely by diseases that could have been prevented. However, the sobering fact is that my Grandfather and Great Aunt are just two people among 7 million others who lose their lives each year due to tobacco smoking.

In Tobacco Control, we often hear people suggesting that we’ve done enough to stop people smoking. But when there are still 5,500 people dying from smoking each year in NSW alone, we still have a long way to go.

In NSW, smoking prevalence has flatlined in the past 4 years. We must continue to prioritise tobacco control in NSW to ensure we see continued decline in smoking.

The number of tobacco retailers contributes to smoking prevalence rates

Despite the known impact of tobacco use, NSW still has almost 10,000 retail outlets selling tobacco products. Having this many outlets, including shops where children and young people visit often, normalises the idea of buying cigarettes and increases the risk of young people taking up smoking.

The widespread availability of tobacco undermines the efforts of smokers trying to quit and increases the risk of people relapsing. Nine in ten smokers are within walking distance of a tobacco retail outlet, so it’s really easy for people to buy in impulse when cravings are high. Smoking is highly addictive and so we need to provide smokers with as much support as possible to quit for good.

Alcohol-licensed premises selling tobacco products contributes to relapse rates

A very large percentage of tobacco outlets in NSW consist of alcohol-licensed premises and/or vending (34.2% of outlets). Those outlet types are particularly problematic, because they are used disproportionately more often by light smokers and attempting quitters. We know that consuming alcohol, especially in social setting like bars and pubs, increases the amount of smoking, increases the likelihood of non-daily smokers smoking and undermines quit attempts. The disinhibiting effect of alcohol and the presence of other smokers are contributing factors, but smokers also report that access to purchase tobacco products increases consumption.

Why and how the NSW Government should act on this issue

The NSW Government has a strong record of acting to reduce smoking, including smoke-free areas, public education campaigns and retail display bans. The widespread retailing of tobacco products undermines the Government’s tobacco control initiatives and sends the wrong message for such a lethal product.

Cancer Council NSW is therefore calling on the next NSW Government to ban tobacco vending machines and introduce an annual licence fee to encourage retailers to stop selling.

Research has shown that cigarette sales are not important to some Australian businesses, so it is expected that a licence fee would encourage these retailers to stop selling, thereby reducing the availability of tobacco in our community. When an annual fee of $200 was introduced in South Australia almost 1/4 of the retailers stopped selling cigarettes. Banning vending machines will also make it easier for people to resist buying on impulse in alcohol licensed premises.

Currently NSW is lagging behind the Australian Capital Territory where tobacco vending machines have been banned, as well as the majority of Australian states and territories that require a tobacco retailer licence.

A tobacco retailer license really is a common sense next step for NSW. A licence is needed to sell alcohol in NSW, so why is it that for such a hugely lethal product retailers do not yet require a license?