Emeritus Professor Mike Daube AO, PHAA President (2007-2010)
Another day, another election spending announcement. Both major parties are promising funding for all manner of purposes – billions for national programs, millions for local projects – even $4.5 million for a Tasmanian distillery.
In recent times politicians from all reputable parties have also been waxing lyrical about the importance of public health.
But there is a disconnect. So far, public health – already desperately under-funded – has not featured in any major funding announcements, which is why the PHAA, along with the Australian Medical Association, Cancer Council, Australian Health Promotion Association and others, is calling for significantly greater investment in prevention.
It’s important to recognise that prevention is about much more than COVID.
Australia’s public health achievements over time are the key reason that our life expectancy is among the best in the world.
And tobacco is a great example of public health success. Despite unrelenting opposition from tobacco companies, smoking rates have fallen dramatically among both adults and adolescents, which is hugely rewarding. But we can’t relax and rely on past glories.
Smoking is still our largest preventable cause of death and disease, still causes 20,000 deaths a year, as well as billions in social and economic costs, and still imposes a heavy burden on our stretched health systems.
Yet we know all the measures needed to reduce smoking – and one of the most important is strong, sustained, properly funded, public education campaigns, across all media, old and new.
This is an area where Australia used to be a world leader. The best evidence tells us that we should be spending at least $40m a year at the national level – less than half the cost of a second-hand submarine bought from the Canary Islands, and just 0.3% of annual tobacco tax revenue.
The present Government deserves credit for maintaining Australia’s strong line on tobacco industry lobbying. But while it has developed public health strategies which read well, it hasn’t implemented them. And it is an absolute disgrace that national tobacco media campaigns have been shelved for a whole decade.
The benefits of public health may not be seen overnight, but this is our opportunity to ensure a longer, healthier life for the next generations.
As one of my favourite quotes reminds us, public health is about “….saving lives, millions at a time”.
But we don’t get the benefits of prevention if we don’t fund it. Failure to support prevention is as culpable as would be removing support for effective, life-saving drugs. The consequence of inadequate funding for tobacco control will be more preventable deaths, more disease, more suffering, more pressure on the health system, and yet more burdens for disadvantaged groups.
That is why we need to see all parties committing to proper investment in public health overall – and to spending all of 0.3% of tobacco tax revenue to save tens of thousands of lives.
Emeritus Professor Mike Daube AO is part of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University and served as PHAA President from 2007 to 2010.