With so much focus on the harms associated with alcohol and illicit drugs, it’s easy to forget that there’s a drug that continues to kill far more Australians each year than any other. Yes, for all the success we’ve achieved in reducing smoking rates in Australia, its estimated that roughly 18,800 Australians are dying prematurely from tobacco-related diseases each year. According to the World Health Organisation, smoking kills more than seven million people on the planet.
On World No Smoking Day, we can say that Australia has, in many ways, led the way in our approach to reducing smoking rates. But there are warning signs that after decades of success, the decline in smoking has stalled, with an estimated 2.4 million Australians still smoking.
The 2016 National Drug Household Survey tells us that 19.1% of males and 14.8% of females aged 40 – 49 are daily smokers, and that daily smoking rates in this age group have actually increased compared with 2013, the first increase in decades. The alarming fact is that Australians aged between 40 and 60 are our biggest smokers. Among females, the 40 – 49 age group smokes more than any other, closely followed by women aged 50 – 59 (14.1%).
Contrast this with younger Australians who are increasingly choosing not to smoke. Only 1.6% of boys and 1.3% of girls aged 12 – 17 are daily smokers, and this rate has declined dramatically over recent years. The same trend is seen among 18 – 24 year olds, with daily smoking rates for young men reducing from 14% to 12.3% and for young women from 12.7% to 10.8%, in the space of just three years.
Clearly, when it comes to saying ‘no’ to tobacco, it’s our younger generation who are getting the message. At Life Education, we see this daily in the reaction from young people when we explain the harms of tobacco, and in their determination afterwards to never smoke. It’s our goal to see every young person make this decision. Why? Because not only is smoking potentially deadly, it’s highly addictive. Nicotine withdrawal is also unpleasant, making the process of quitting a very difficult one for many. With most adults who smoke starting the habit when they are teenagers, educating young Australians not to smoke in the first place is surely our best strategy and will have a dramatic effect on the quality and quantity of life for tens of thousands of Australians into the future.
But while the data on youth smoking is encouraging, there’s no time to be complacent. The rise of electronic cigarettes or vaping – although currently regulated in Australia – poses a new challenge for those who’ve been at the frontline of smoking reduction efforts for many years. Despite claims e-cigarettes may help long-term smokers quit the habit, a recent study found more than half of the e-cigarettes sold as ‘nicotine-free’ in Australia actually do contain nicotine. The Australian Medical Association fears there’s not enough evidence about the long-term potential harms of vaping and says e-cigarettes glamorise smoking as cool and acceptable – an image peddled by Big Tobacco that health bodies have spent years trying to dismantle.
That’s why we need to maintain our vigilance, not just on World No Tobacco Day, but every day – because every cigarette is doing you damage.