Australia: Big Tobacco wins in defeat of T21 age bill


Kathryn Barnsley

An innovative legislative reform in Tasmania, Australia has been defeated, after what appears to be tobacco industry interference via third parties, with support from vaping lobby groups.

A 2018 bill to gradually phase in and raise the minimum legal sales age of e-cigarettes and tobacco to 21 years (T21) now law in Singapore and across all states and federally in the USA, was lost 12 votes to 3 in the Tasmanian Legislative Council on 23 March 2021.

It was hoped the legislation would reduce Tasmania’s smoking prevalence, which is the second highest of all Australian states and territories, at more than 17%. The legislation would have seen Tasmania leading Australia in new tobacco control policies.

This bill had been preceded by a bill for the Tobacco Free Generation, (TFG), a proposal developed by Prof. Jon Berrick, which would have phased out tobacco sales to anyone born after the year 2000. That bill was tabled in Parliament in 2012 but lapsed due to the 2014 election being called.

The sponsor of both these bills was Hon. Ivan Dean, an Independent MP and former senior police officer. Mr Dean was motivated by his father, a smoker, who died a painful death from lung cancer.

There is a long history in Australia of Independents, minor parties, backbenchers, and women initiating legislative reforms in tobacco control. Following this model, in which advocates are urged to “…make the most of their access points to the political process, providing information, arguments and support and demonstrating public opinion in favour of further control”, SmokeFree Tasmania sought to promote the idea of TFG and T21 to Mr Dean.

It was supported by all the major health organisations in Tasmania, some organisations from other states, and some US organisations including the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation Tobacco21. The Western Australian Minderoo Foundation assisted with funding research projects to provide background to the T21, including analysis of the economic effects on small to medium enterprises. These research projects and summaries can be accessed on the SmokeFree Tasmania website.

Tasmania is one of the few places in the world where the tobacco industry is not permitted by law to “tell lies” about the health effects of tobacco, nor legislation, under Sections 74 and 74AA of the Public Health Act 1997. Therefore, in Tasmania the industry is hamstrung and can only campaign via others. This is a problem for the tobacco industry, further exacerbated by Article 5.3 of the FCTC to which Australia is a signatory, and which rules out legislators dealing with the tobacco industry except in transparent circumstances on the public record.

Tasmania has a long history of fighting political barriers, including crony capitalism and corruption in relation to big tobacco interference in its affairs. One Tasmanian government was brought down by British Tobacco (now British American Tobacco) through a bribery scandal in the 1970s.

These constraints have impelled the tobacco industry to infiltrate some retailer trade organisations.  A recent news story also detailed apparent links between a Hong Kong-based public relations firm used by Philip Morris International and the vaping advocacy organisation the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA). According to the report, ATHRA members were unable to explain the apparent links. Both retailer organisations and vaping advocacy groups campaigned vociferously against T21, the latter under the guise of “harm reduction”. Advocates also organised meetings and events with members of parliament. During the debate on the T21 bill, some MPs used tobacco industry-favoured language such as  “freedom of choice” and “unintended consequences”, and claimed the supposed ineffectiveness of policy measures.

In the end, rather than adopt this strong, evidence-based measure, the government opted to support a weak program of school-based education, which already exists and has not been found to be effective in Tasmania. Surprisingly, the industry seems to have abandoned the “nanny state” epithet for reforms, perhaps because some researchers have effectively challenged the concept.

Dr. Kathryn Barnsley is an Adjunct Researcher in the School of Medicine at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.  

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