29 May, 2015 Last updated: 29 May, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

World No Tobacco Day is a key global public health campaign of the World Health Organization (WHO). The annual event held on 31 May each year aims to draw attention to the dangers of tobacco and explore effective policy opportunities to address the harm caused by tobacco.

Tobacco is a serious issue and the enormity of the global harm caused by tobacco is almost impossible to comprehend. It is estimated that tobacco causes 6 million deaths per year globally - that is more people that live in the state of Victoria. Put another way, it is equivalent to 44 fully loaded 747 jets crashing every day of the year. Worryingly it is estimated that the harm from tobacco will continue to grow and cause 8 million deaths annually by 2030.

This year the theme of World No Tobacco Day 2015 is ‘illicit tobacco’. Worldwide, the issue of illicit tobacco is serious. The WHO estimates that one in every 10 cigarettes, and many other tobacco products, consumed worldwide are illegal. On a global scale, the illicit trade of tobacco products are a major concern.

Thankfully the issue of illicit tobacco in Australia is comparatively small compared to other countries, and in-fact it appears that there is a continuing decline in the use of illicit tobacco in Australia. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of over 24,000 respondents found that 3.6% of smokers currently smoke unbranded (chop-chop) tobacco, which is also known as illicit tobacco. This has reduced from 6.1 per cent in 2007 and 4.9 per cent in 2010. 

Irrespective of the evidence, the tobacco industry would have you believe that Australian retailers are selling such vast quantities of illicit tobacco that it is forced to sell super cheap cigarettes. 

We must be cautious of the claims of Big Tobacco. While the industry may claim they are selling cheap tobacco to counter the illicit trade, it is in fact a deliberate tactic to undermine effective tobacco control efforts. 

In 2013, the Australian Government introduced a series of tobacco excise increases because of the strong evidence that showed increasing excise reduced demand, increased quit attempts and reduced overall smoking prevalence. The evidence showed that a 10% increase in cigarette price will produce approximately a 4% decline in the quantity of cigarettes demanded by smokers. Most importantly, increasing the price of cigarettes acts as a disincentive for young people to smoke. 

We must be clear in our understanding that the tobacco industry selling cheap tobacco isn’t about being competitive with the illicit tobacco trade, it’s about deliberately undermining a very effective tobacco tactic to keep people smoking and recruit new smokers.

Although tobacco control strategies have been effective with the National Drug Strategy Household survey showing smoking prevalence has declined significantly between 2010 and 2013 (from 15.1% to 12.8%), these tactics by the tobacco industry show we can’t think we have done all we need to do in tobacco control. There is still great harm being inflicted by tobacco, not only globally but here in Victoria. 

We must remain vigilant to the tactics of the industry, and we have an obligation to ensure that we are doing all we can do to continue the decline in smoking prevalence. We need to see through the spin of the tobacco industry and make sure their tactics do not undermine the progress we have made in reducing the harms from tobacco.

Since its establishment in 1987, VicHealth has been committed to reducing the harms from tobacco, from buying out tobacco sponsorship of sport and the arts, to being a major funder of the Quit program, to funding world leading research in tobacco control. VicHealth's strong commitment remains to this day, and we will continue to work closely with our partners to monitor and address industry spin to ensure tobacco control strategies are not undermined by the tactics of the industry. 

- Jerril