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Proof anti-smoking measures work

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Smoking rates have virtually halved in the last 20 years as Australians shun the deadly habit in record numbers, underlining the success of anti-tobacco measures including excises, smoking bans and plain packaging.

Less the 13 per cent of people aged 14 years or older lit up daily last year, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures, down from 15.1 per cent in 2010 and virtually half the proportion who lit up in 1991.

In a major boost for the AMA and other health campaigners keen to prevent people from starting the habit, the Institute’s National Drugs Strategy Household Survey found that a high and growing proportion of young people have never smoked.

It found that last year 95 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds had never smoked, along with three-quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds. In addition, the average age at which smokers begin puffing increased to almost 16 years last year, up from 14 years in 1995.

The trends have made smoking increasingly an old person’s habit. Those aged 40 to 49 years were the most likely to smoke daily (16.2%), while 50 to 69-year-olds were the heaviest smokers, puffing through an average 120 cigarettes a week, virtually double the amount of smokers in their twenties.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said the results were a rebuff to tobacco industry claims that smoking had increased since plain packaging laws were introduced.

“The AIHW survey demonstrates beyond question that sales have markedly declined since the introduction of the world-leading plain packaging laws,” A/Professor Owler said.

The tobacco industry has sought to sow doubts about the efficacy of plain packaging as part of an international fight to stop the adoption of the laws by other countries.

Last month A/Professor Owler panned The Australian newspaper for peddling discredited industry claims that plain packaging laws were not working. Tobacco companies have claimed the laws have simply resulted in smokers swapping to cheaper brands.

But A/Professor Owler said these claims were not borne out by the evidence, with official figures showing the amount spent on tobacco products had slumped 5.3 per cent since plain packaging was introduced in late 2012.

Plain packaging is just one of a raft of tobacco control measures adopted by Australian governments, including hefty excise charges, advertising bans and public education campaigns.

In its recent assessment of the health performance of member countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lauded Australia’s “remarkable success” in reducing smoking rates to among the lowest in the developed world.

The OECD attributed much of the decline to tobacco control measures enacted by government, including being the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging.

Not only are young people smoking less than their forebears, they are also drinking less and take fewer illicit drugs, the AIHW found.

These developments are in line with emerging trends in other countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.

The Economist newspaper has reported that teenagers in these countries are drinking, smoking and taking drugs and significantly lower rates than a decade ago. It speculated that reasons for this may include ageing populations, greater gender equality and ethnic diversity, economic and social pressure for academic and professional attainment, extended cohabitation between children and parents, and changes in the approach to parenting.

Adrian Rollins