Smokers in Tasmania have an extra incentive for quitting on New Year's Day: the island state, which already has some of the world's strictest anti-smoking laws, is considering banning tobacco altogether.
The proposal was put forward by councillors in Burnie, in north-western Tasmania, in response to a discussion paper by the state government, which wants to reduce the smoking rate, one of Australia's highest. Despite the island's clean, green image, one person in four lights up each day, compared with a national average of 17 per cent.
Those smokers are becoming increasingly marginalised: the state capital, Hobart, banned cigarettes from the city centre four months ago, and the second-biggest city, Launceston, recently decided to do the same. Other councils are considering following suit, and there are also calls for smoking to be prohibited on the island's beaches. But if Burnie City Council gets its way, the sale, possession and consumption of tobacco would be outlawed state-wide. Even back gardens would be smoke-free.
Smokers would be forced to go cold turkey – or perhaps emigrate to the mainland. The idea has been denounced by civil libertarians and even health experts question the wisdom of such a drastic step. But Burnie is standing its ground. "We just wanted to take that extra step; to show how passionate we are about creating a healthy environment," said one local official.
In Launceston, Ivan Dean, a city councillor and state politician, tried for years to persuade his colleagues to ban smoking in the business district. Earlier this month, he finally succeeded. "I don't think it's a drastic step," he said. "Three-quarters of people don't smoke and they should have some say about where smoking takes place in public."
Even Mr Dean, though, is sceptical about a Prohibition-style ban in Tasmania. "I think there would be an outcry," he said. "You'd be introducing a regime like America in the 1930s. It would create bootlegging and a black market. There would be mayhem and I don't think we're ready for that."
Michael Wilson, executive director of Quit Tasmania, believes price increases and health education campaigns are more effective than bans. He recalls that when the price of cigarettes went up by more than 15 per cent last April, the number of calls to the Quitline telephone advice service increased by 700 per cent in the first week.
Questioning whether a blanket ban was practical or even desirable, Mr Wilson said: "That's a futuristic sort of approach and it would be fraught with danger. I think it's more appropriate to whittle the rate down as low as we can get it, then smoking will more or less go away."
While the smoking rate in mainland Australia has dropped from 26 per cent 15 years ago, it has barely been dented in Tasmania. The government's Preventative Health Taskforce wants the national rate to be cut to 10 per cent by 2020.
Civil Liberties Australia believes that making pariahs out of smokers is not the answer. One of its directors, Tim Vines, said that while there might be valid public health reasons for banning smoking in indoor venues and outdoor eating areas, "it's paternalistic to exile people engaging in an otherwise legal activity from public life and confine them to their backyards".
One place smokers should not consider emigrating to is New Zealand. Anti-smoking groups are demanding the country be smoke-free by 2020.
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