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Smokers’ rights speech clouded by ideology

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Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm has drawn the ire of the AMA and public health groups after portraying the tobacco excise and passive smoking laws as attacks on individual choice.

In an inflammatory speech in Parliament, Senator Leyonhjelm condemned the tobacco excise as “flagrant theft” and lambasted “health mandarins” who, not content with banning advertising of cigarettes and the commercial cultivation of tobacco, now sought to ban smoking in prisons and “insane asylums”.

“That’s right, people in cages who have lost most or all of their rights are denied even this small thing,” the Senator said. “The same people worry and worry about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking rates…Aborigines on income management, like prisoners, are also denied this small consolation. Racial paternalism lives on.”

Senator Leyonhjelm said smokers paid far more in taxes than their habit cost in terms of health expenditure. He said the tobacco excise raised about $8 billion a year, while treating patients with smoking-related health problems cost the country a net $318.4 million a year and bushfire control measures cost a further $150 million.

“Smokers of Australia, despite your generosity, I need to apologise on behalf of the short-sighted pickers of your pockets in this place,” he told the Senate, and likened current tobacco taxation and regulation arrangements to the Prohibition.

His comment drew swift condemnation from AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis, who labelled them “misguided” and “utterly inappropriate”.

“It’s an unfortunate case that an elected member of the Parliament has allowed ideology to get in the way of reality,” Dr Parnis told the Herald Sun. “That reality is that smoking kills. It causes long, drawn out painful deaths for thousands of Australian every year.

“Senator Leyonhjelm’s comments are misguided, utterly inappropriate and quite disappointing.”

Senator Leyonhjelm drew his estimate of the health costs of smoking from a report prepared for the Federal Health Department by David Collins of Macquarie University and Helen Lapsley of the University of Queensland in 2008.

They reported that in 2004-05 there were 14,901 deaths attributable to tobacco use, as well as 753,618 days of hospitalisation. In total, they estimated smoking- related illnesses cost the health system $1.836 billion that year, which was offset by a $1.517 billion saving from the reduced demand for health care from smokers who died prematurely, leaving a net cost of $318.4 million for the year.

But, in his speech, Senator Leyonhjelm made only passing reference to others costs attributed to smoking by Collins and Lapsley.

The researchers estimated the habit resulted in tangible social costs amounting to more than $12 billion in 2004-05, including lost productivity in the workplace and at home because of premature death and illness, the diversion of more than $3.5 billion from household budgets into buying cigarettes, and other community costs such as fire prevention measures.

The Cancer Council said Collins and Lapsley’s estimates of the social costs of tobacco abuse were “extremely conservative” and the actual costs were likely to be much higher.

The Council said a lack of data prevented Collins and Lapsley assigning values to many of the social costs known to be attributable to smoking, such as the purchase of over-the-counter medicines, domiciliary care and allied health services. In addition, reduced on-the-job productivity was not costed, despite estimates that smokers take out eight to 30 minutes each work day to indulge their habit.

In earlier research, Collins and Lapsley estimated that tobacco accounted for about 80 per cent of total health care costs resulting from drug abuse in 1998-99.

In 2004, Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy reported reduced smoking rates were likely to have saved the country $8.6 billion in the previous 30 years.

Dr Parnis said the costs of smoking were all too apparent in his daily work in public hospitals.

“No one complains about life-saving care when I’m in my resuscitation bay treating someone who cannot breathe because of the effect of lung cancer,” he said. “I’m an emergency physician, and I see these patients on a very regular basis.”

Adrian Rollins