Tobacco Donations

Private Members' Business
Tobacco Products, 30 May 2011

Each year 15,000 Australians die from smoking. That means 41 people a day. By the time this debate has concluded, an Australian will have died because she smoked. We also know that smokers harm those around them—children who inhale passive smoke, or the one-in-six babies born to mothers who smoked while pregnant. Smoking rates in regional areas are twice as high as in the cities, and people in the bush have higher death rates from lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

These are the stark realities of smoking. Yet there remain groups in this place that continue to profit from this reality. The self-proclaimed party of responsibility refuses to take responsibility for the devastating impact of tobacco on Australians' health. And the self-proclaimed party of the bush shows less concern for the health of rural Australians than the property rights of tobacco companies.

Last week I received an email from a constituent about why we should support the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing in their efforts to reduce smoking rates. The constituent wrote:

'My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and one of my uncles all died from smoking-related conditions. Each of the latter three died 20-30 years before the life expectancy for their generation. My father's addiction contributed to two decades of poor health prior to his premature death, resulting in frequent periods where he was unable to work.

'My siblings and I grew up in poverty, the effects of which are still evident, and the taxpayer bore the cost of his many hospitalisations as well as the cumulative years of income support our family depended on in lieu of employment. I say this so that you will understand my absence of sympathy for the 'principle argument', that tobacco companies have a right to make a profit from pushing legal drugs.'

I was proud to join the Minister for Health and Ageing and the Minister for Indigenous Health earlier this year at the launch of an ad campaign designed by Indigenous Australians to help reduce Indigenous smoking rates, rates that are twice as high as for non-Indigenous Australians and a major contributor to the life expectancy gap. Yet those opposite seem set on blocking common-sense reforms like higher tobacco excise or the plain packaging of cigarettes. As with their stance on climate change, they are the ‘Party of No'. There is a precedent for this kind of nay-saying. Former opposition leader Billy Snedden said about the link between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease: 'So far I have not seen any conclusive evidence to that effect and, as I understand the position, there is still some argument on the question.' The Leader of the Opposition today is like his predecessor of yore. Mr Abbott's denial of the science of climate change is the modern-day equivalent of Billy Snedden's denial of the link between smoking and cancer.

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document some remarkable parallels between the debate over climate change and earlier debates over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. In each case, those opposed to action tried to sow doubt. Oreskes and Conway quote a 1969 memo in which a tobacco industry executive makes clear the strategy: 'Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the public.'

As late as 1995, Senator Minchin doubted the link between smoking and adverse health effects, yet even he has now come around. If a warhorse like Senator Minchin can change his mind and accept the science, there is hope for anyone. The Leader of the Opposition wrote in his book Battlelines:

'Conservatism prefers facts to theory, practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what's in the mind's eye … Conservatives are not optimists or pessimists but realists.'

On both climate change and smoking, the science is settled—and the solutions are clear. All that stands  in the way are big polluters and big tobacco.

I know there are some in the Liberal and National Parties who are concerned about going cold turkey on accepting donations from big tobacco. But I can assure them that we will help them through this. We can offer them counselling. We will walk them through this. And they will have the best nicotine patch of all: the knowledge that they have, at long last, done the right thing for the health of young Australians.

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