Dying habit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am


Iceland is considering banning the sale of cigarettes except by prescription at pharmacies. The legislative proposal will be debated in its parliament this autumn, and some say it has little chance of succeeding.

What is important, though, is that this issue has been raised at a national level in one country: the idea of banning tobacco is now on the table and it will slowly seep into the global public consciousness.

Nicotine, the primary psychoactive chemical in cigarette, is addictive. All kinds of additives are mixed with tobacco making every inhalation a serious health risk. Iceland's proposal would formally class nicotine as an addictive substance and tobacco smoke as carcinogenic.

Moreover, the habit not only injures the health of the smoker, but the inhalation of their smoke hurts those around them. The harm of second-hand smoking takes away the argument that a smoker has a right to smoke as he pleases, which is the reason for the increasing spread of smoke-free work and public areas. While there are estimated to be about a billion smokers in the world - with the largest number in China - they are far outnumbered by non-smokers.

If someone invented cigarettes today, it's hard to believe that they would be approved by authorities around the world as safe, given what we know about the side effects of smoking, especially serious diseases of the lungs and heart.

However, the tobacco industry is huge and lobbies hard to stay in business for as long as possible, even though governments and health authorities know full well the risk it poses to public health.

Since the 1970s, the adverse health effects of smoking have become widely accepted. Governments began to require health warnings to be stated on cigarette packets, and today it is common for the warnings to be both in text and graphic forms.

The Australian government has gone the furthest by putting a bill to Parliament to force tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes by the middle of next year in plain packaging carrying graphic health warnings aimed at removing the glamour from tobacco products.

Likewise, cigarette advertising today faces many restrictions. Tobacco advertising and sponsorship of sports events have been outlawed in many places, or strictly regulated. Tobacco advertising is broadly banned in Hong Kong.

Further measures locally to discourage the habit include banning vending machines and sales to those under 18 years old, and imposing high tobacco taxes. Last month, the legislature raised the tobacco duty by 41.5 per cent on the basis of evidence showing that raising tobacco taxes was an effective way to reduce smoking, especially among the young.

Iceland's proposal takes Australia's lead in packaging a step further. If passed, cigarettes will be sold only by prescription in pharmacies to people aged at least 20.

Doctors would be encouraged to help smokers kick the habit, and if treatment doesn't work, only then would a prescription be given.

Smoking is thus made to be seen for what it is - an unhealthy addiction that will be banned one day.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange. cloh@civic-exchange.org