Editorial | Tighter tobacco laws need teeth

Image: ©Studio-Annika/istock.com

While it is all very well for the government to be introducing reforms to tobacco control laws, it should also weigh up how effective they can be when existing legislation around smoking in public has been so poorly enforced.

The Department of Health’s new bill on tobacco products seeks to protect the public – smokers included – even further. But there is little evidence to suggest that drastic steps first introduced more than 20 years ago with a lot of fanfare and the same objective – with subsequent additions – were ever really as effective as was hoped.

One of the most intendedly stringent of these rules was compelling restaurants and bars to have designated smoking areas, which caused something of a backlash from such businesses.

But while many complied at the time – incurring substantial renovation costs – you would be hard pressed to find a pub these days which still adheres to the regulations strictly by the book.

Indeed, many just ignore the requirement altogether.
The problem has always been one of policing, and a law which cannot be effectively invoked with prosecutions and sanctions is not really a law at all.

That same drawback will apply to aspects of the proposed new legislation, such as the complete ban on smoking in outdoor public places – which, while well-intentioned, will prove virtually impossible to implement with any degree of success if the goal is guardianship of public health.

It may be a welcome move, but whether it makes any difference to the way smokers – reduced by now to be a naturally furtive species – will behave remains to be seen.

What the new bill does offer in way of a concrete move to reduce health hazards is the regulation of e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine devices for the first time.

There has been growing evidence for some years now that such smoking alternatives are not as clean and safe as first promoted, and that while the level of toxicity is reduced, it is by no means removed.

Make no mistake, the government has made huge strides in controlling tobacco use since it first set on this path in the early 1990s with the country facing an epidemic when it came to numbers of smokers. But it needs to also devise methods of how best to execute its strategy so that it can more forcefully meet its purpose.