Picking on Big Tobacco

By Ruth Limkin
The Federal Government is introducing legislation which will require tobacco be sold in plain packaging, specifically olive green, which research has shown is the most unappealing to smokers.

The packaging will not carry obvious logos and instead will ‘only show the death and disease that can come from smoking’, according to Health Minister Nicola Roxon.

Tobacco companies are obviously up in arms, and to be honest, who can blame them. The government is specifically requiring them to present their still legal product in the most unappealing colour possible to their customers.

However, considering that we have a publicly funded health system, I can understand the rationale behind high taxes and advertising restrictions on products such as tobacco.

It seems sensible to generate public revenue by taxing the products that will contribute to the demand on our hospital system, and to decrease demand for the products by limiting attractive advertising.

After all, the government is quick to remind us that ‘smoking kills 15,000 Australians a year and costs the community about $31.5 billion annually’.

That’s why I find it strange that we’re being so inconsistent about this.

Increasingly, research is demonstrating the immense public health challenges caused by another large industry – and I’m not talking about McDonalds.

In fact, Professor Dallas English, leading cancer epidemiologist from the University of Melbourne, said ‘too much emphasis had been placed on diet in preventing cancer’ while it was ‘now known that alcohol consumption could cause cancer’.

This was also discussed in the World Health Organisation report recently released, which showed that ‘alcohol is a causal factor in 60 types of diseases and injuries’, including cancers of the colorectum, breast, larynx and liver. Vladimir Poznyak, who heads the WHO substance abuse unit, underscored the gravity of this when he said, “Six or seven years ago we didn’t have strong evidence of a causal relationship between drinking and breast cancer. Now we do.”

The British Medical Journal has also just released research that found alcohol caused one in 10 cancers in men and one in 33 in women.

Additionally, when a new Australian study by the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation reveals that ‘more than 4 million Australians say they drink alcohol with the aim of getting drunk’ and 80 per cent of Australian’s believe the nation has a drinking problem, we must take seriously the public health implications.

Data was collected from eight European countries and showed that “many cancer cases could have been avoided if alcohol consumption is limited to two alcoholic drinks per day in men and one alcoholic drink per day in women, … and even more cancer cases would be prevented if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol at all.”

I’m no fan of tobacco companies. I’m also no fan of alcohol companies.

However, they are both industries we legally allow to operate.

The government is telling us that the idea of plain packaging for tobacco is justified by the public health cost, and that it is ‘about making sure people don’t pick up the habit in the first place’.

Given that, I’m waiting to find out what colour the plain packaging will be for alcohol companies.

Or maybe that research isn’t in yet.

Or maybe we’re just too reluctant to begin this conversation.

I don’t know why we shy away from talking about this, when people are dying from diseases caused by alcohol.

So why are we only picking on Big Tobacco?