Smoking cessation is clearly the most effective way for smokers to reduce the risk of harm and disease caused by cigarette smoking and for many decades, the Australian Government’s primary strategies for reducing such harm have been preventing smoking initiation and promoting smoking cessation.
However, despite halving the smoking rate since 1991, Australia’s decline in annual smoking rates has almost stalled since 2014, declining by less than 1% in the last six years.
Currently, close to 3 million Australians still smoke. In an ideal world, all these smokers would quit tobacco and nicotine use altogether. However, we do not live in an ideal world and the reality is that many will not. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there will still be 1.1 billion people worldwide who choose to smoke in 2025.1 Closer to home, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that one-third of Australian smokers do not want to quit.2
A study released by the Mitchell Institute in May 2020 also showed that alarmingly high rates of smoking continue in certain Australian communities, with at least 1 in 5 adults smoking in over 200 communities.3 There is a clear pattern to these smoking rates, with the lowest rates of smoking in many of Australia’s wealthiest suburbs, and the highest rates of smoking in communities with high rates of relative socio-economic disadvantage.
Australian adult smokers continue to use tobacco and nicotine in its most dangerous form – ‘tobacco prepared and packed for smoking’ (i.e. combustible cigarettes). According to the Cancer Council Australia smoking “claims the lives of 15,500”4 Australians every year.
Although science, innovation and technology have allowed for the development of alternative nicotine delivery products that do not involve combustion or smoke, these products are still not legally available to adult smokers in Australia who would otherwise continue to smoke. These products are not risk-free because they deliver nicotine, which is addictive. However, when such products are introduced in conjunction with appropriate regulations and strategies, including to combat initiation and encourage smoking cessation, they can make a positive contribution to improving public health in Australia, including in socio-economically disadvantaged communities where smoking rates continue to be high.
There’s no question that never starting smoking or quitting tobacco and nicotine altogether are the best options. It’s time for Australian regulators to recognise that many adult smokers will continue to smoke and change existing laws and regulations to make scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternatives available to Australian adult smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke.