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If I Ruled the World: Tanya Plibersek

It blows me away when I have dinner with people who order organic food, count their fat content and then happily light up a fag at the end of the meal. Despite the best efforts of governments, public health advocates, and even well-meaning friends, large numbers of Australians continue to choose to smoke.

If I ruled the world I would want to stub out cigarettes for good.

It isn’t just frustration at seeing friends’ health jeopardised by their addiction.

It isn’t just that smoking related illnesses kill around 15,000 people every year in Australia – a familiar statistic that is all too concrete for those thousands of families who have lost parents and siblings.

It’s who smoking kills, and which lives it wrecks along the way.

In 2010 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare took a detailed snapshot of smoking in our community. Although their report showed our overall levels of smoking decreasing, it also showed that some groups are continuing to smoke at rates well above the average.

If you live in an area of economic disadvantage, you are almost twice as likely to smoke as people living in an area of affluence.

Indigenous Australians are 2.2 times as likely to smoke as non-Indigenous Australians.

Smokers are over twice as likely as non-smokers to report mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia and other form of psychosis.

This year, the Aids Council of NSW released research showing same-sex attracted women are more than twice as likely to smoke as the general population.

Those groups within our community who are smoking in far greater numbers are those who already suffer forms of discrimination or exclusion. And if you’re already poor, adding smoking to the mix doesn’t just affect your health, it means less money available for the necessities of life.

Australians have an instinctive feel for what’s fair and what’s not. A major cause of death which disproportionately affects those already worse off cannot sit comfortably with the mentality of the ‘fair go’. Particularly troubling is when those deaths are caused by the sale of addictive substances by for-profit multinational corporations.

The business model of big tobacco is ‘keep finding new smokers; the old ones are dying’.

As the Federal Health Minister I am glad Australia is leading the world in our efforts to reduce smoking rates, such as with the groundbreaking plain packaging legislation which passed the House of Representatives in 2011.

The Government is also investing $27.8M for anti-smoking campaigns targeted at high-risk and highly disadvantaged groups. Part of this investment created the first ever Indigenous-specific television commercial as part of a national health campaign, Break the Chain, urging Indigenous Australians to break the chain and quit smoking. Along with Quitline and subsidising nicotine patches, public health programs mean our number of daily smokers has fallen from 30.5 per cent of Australians over 14 in 1988 to 16.6 per cent in 2007.

Smokers come from all walks of life, from the “health conscious” calorie-counter to those facing a whole range of difficult circumstances. It is important to respect the right for everyone, including those who suffer disadvantage, to make choices about their own lives. At the same time, we have a shared responsibility to take seriously the link between disadvantage and smoking related illness and death.

If I ruled the world, it’s a link I would happily break.

Tanya Plibersek is the Federal Member for Sydney and the Federal Minister for Health.