By Malcolm Baalman
Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser, PHAA
A major piece of public health legislation is making its way through Parliament this month.
In November 2022, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the introduction of plain packaging in Australia, Minister for Health Mark Butler, announced that the Government would consolidate into a single Act all of Australia’s current tobacco measures, along with a suite of new measures.
The Public Health (Tobacco and other Products) Bill 2023 implements the Government’s historic update of national tobacco laws. The Bill was passed through the House of Representatives two weeks ago, and this week is the subject of scrutiny by a Senate Committee, with a view to going through the Senate before the end of the year. (You can track the progress of the Bill through Parliament here, if you are a parliament-tragic).
The main need for the Bill was to tidy up three decades of multiple tobacco laws and regulations into one consolidated, modernised single statute, and renew some expiring provisions. This consolidation of the legislation will make applying and enforcing tobacco control laws more straightforward for federal health, customs and other agencies, as well as state and territory agencies.
The current Bill is the result of a four year process called the thematic review of tobacco control legislation, conducted by the Department of Health and Aged Care since 2019. The review “drew on the suggestions of a range of stakeholders as to how the legislation could be improved to address current and future challenges and achieve the Government’s objectives in tobacco control.” The long process also saw the release of the revised National Tobacco Strategy 2023–2030 in May 2023.
The consultation identified four major themes:
- “the need for policy and legislation to be responsive to emerging changes in smoking markets and patterns such as the growth in online sales and proliferation of marketing and promotional activities through social media platforms
- the challenges posed by the emergence of e-cigarettes and the need for a regulatory framework for this category of product given consumer and industry interest in the products and concerns regarding evidence both of their safety and efficacy as smoking cessation devices
- the fragmented nature of tobacco control regulation and inconsistencies between the Commonwealth and the states and territories’ tobacco control legislation
- the perceived opportunity to improve tobacco control by centralising the administration, monitoring and enforcement of legislative interventions relating to the health impacts of tobacco use in one agency.”
Drawing on international best practices, the new Bill creates a number of new rules and arrangements about tobacco product regulation, including:
- update and improve graphic health warnings on packaging
- require health promotion inserts in packs and pouches
- standardise the size of tobacco packets and products
- prevent the use of specified ingredients in tobacco products
- standardise the design and look of filters in cigarettes
- limit the use of appealing brand and variant names that imply reduced harm
The Bill will also introduce reporting requirements for the tobacco industry to disclose tobacco product ingredients, tobacco product sales volumes and promotional activities. This will help with safety regulation and also with tracking novel marketing techniques used to promote tobacco products. (Tobacco advertising is of course banned, but industries use various ways to promote their products online, especially towards younger generations of potential new users.)
These measures may each seem small in isolation, but they have been selected to further protect public health, and to contribute to the downward trend of tobacco use.
The national goal is to get daily smoking prevalence to below 10% by 2025 and below 5% by 2030, and reduce the daily smoking rate among First Nations people to 27% or less by 2030. The national rate is currently around 10% and trending downward. The rate among young Australians is lower than 10%, but there are serious concerns that vaping use is causing a potential upward drive in young people taking up smoking.
This present Bill is separate from the Governments announcements about dealing with vaping, which are coming in a separate package of legislation, regulatory directions and program funding, and are expected in the near future.
The Bill before Parliament does, however, bring e-cigarettes into the system of comprehensive advertising restrictions which have applied to other tobacco/nicotine products for decades.
The Senate Committee is expected to report before the end of November.
Want to know more? There is an excellent ‘bill digest’ report published a few weeks ago by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, which explains everything in the Bill, and also contains a very useful overview of the background of tobacco regulation in Australia in recent decades; highly recommended reading.