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Smoking levels continue to plummet

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Some good news on health – Australians are smoking less with the amount of tobacco consumed dropping to a record low in the September quarter 2018, and this includes data back to 1959 when Australia’s population was about a fifth of what it is today.

The peak consumption of tobacco came in the mid-1970s. Since then, there has been an unrelenting fall, with the timing of the downturn broadly coincided with the increasing prominence given to the link between smoking and early death and a range of government regulations aimed at reducing smoking rates.

Most recently, the introduction of plain packaging laws, together with hefty increases in excises – taxes in other words – has continued to drive the consumption of tobacco lower.

The decline in the volume of tobacco consumed in Australia has crashed a staggering 24.4 per cent since the plain packaging laws were introduced at the end of 2012. This is despite population growth of around 8.5 per cent over that time.

Factors other than the introduction of plain packaging laws were also driving smoking levels lower – as noted, the sharp rise in excise taxes, many years of health awareness, tobacco advertising bans, restricting smoking in public places and even the fact many smokers have died and therefore are not buying tobacco products are all driving smoking to record lows.

Many of these changes are government regulations, taken against the wishes of the tobacco companies and tobacco retailers and reflect a government commitment to improve the health of the population.

Since 1975, Australia’s population has roughly doubled, yet the volume of tobacco consumed has plummeted by more than 65 per cent.

All of this goes to show that well crafted government regulation can achieve desired outcomes.

Let’s think of a few other issues where government regulation might work.

Obesity could easily be reduced if there was a tax on sugar, a massive awareness campaign highlighting healthy lifestyle choices, restrictions in junk food advertising and even plain packaging on food products that make people fatter.

This mix of policies would work.

In a different area, the number of road death have been reduced over the past few decades with drink and drug driving laws, speed cameras, greater enforcement of speed limits, seat belts, higher fines and awareness campaigns such as stop, revive, survive all impacting.

Then there is climate change.

A price on carbon would see carbon emissions fall, and government funding of renewables would accelerate the path to lower carbon emissions as wind and solar accounted for an increased share of electricity output. It is only political will or the lack thereof that is keeping Australia’s per capita carbon output among the highest in the world.

Sometimes, the general population is annoyed at the level of government intervention in the economy and their day to day lives.

Extra costs, red tape and compliance issues are indeed annoying when the government implements policy wide-reaching regulatory changes.

But sometimes the government gets the policy setting right.

The strategy to reduce and hopefully eliminate smoking is one of those times.

There should be consideration to using a similar approach to target other areas which will improve living standards.

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