Reporter Matt Young, Cat Fryer and Shane Warne enjoy a smoke - we just can’t show you.
Reporter Matt Young, Cat Fryer and Shane Warne enjoy a smoke - we just can’t show you.

The war on smokers

As a smoker, I remember it well.

The lights dazzled on the dance floor, Rihanna raged over the sound system and I, gin and tonic in hand, hurriedly puffed away on what was to be my last cigarette in a club.

That was Oxford St in 2010 - the night before smoking was banned in all indoor pubs and clubs in NSW.

Little did any of us know it was just the beginning of the battle to get rid of cigarettes for good as, law by law and tax by tax, Australia adopted some of the most stringent smoking regulations in the world.

By today's standards I feel a virtual pariah. Smoking is not just considered a dirty habit, but a danger to others.

A No Smoking sign painted on the steps to Bondi beach. Picture Craig Greenhill.
A No Smoking sign painted on the steps to Bondi beach. Picture Craig Greenhill.

That was the position cricketers Shaun Marsh and Jackson Bird found themselves in this week, dubbed bad role models for smoking in public while celebrating the Ashes series win against England.

The fact is smokers have nowhere to hide from the growing public reproof.

Best-selling author Nikki Gemmell has called smoking "a public declaration of stupidity" and described smokers as "relics of a bygone age".

It's true the war on smoking in this country is led by health concerns. And 15 years ago there were some 15,000 deaths a year attributed to smoking from illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer and respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.

But - importantly - it's not illegal. So are the increasingly draconian laws about where you can smoke, or even what can be published about smoking, justified?

Matt Young and Cat Fryer sneak a durry in a laneway in Surry Hills.
Matt Young and Cat Fryer sneak a durry in a laneway in Surry Hills.

Civil Liberties Australia's Mark Jarratt says: "The government acts like they own the atmosphere and they don't. The coverage of smoking is almost one-sided.

"It's the result of decades of taxpayer-funded negative conditioning which has created the impression among the wider population that one whiff of smoke and you'll drop dead on the spot.

"There's no middle ground for these people. What's next? Are we going to have to sing the national anthem and do 20 push-ups before we go to work?"

For decades cricket and other sports in Australia were sponsored by tobacco companies and promoted by our top sports people and entertainers. The country's favourite comedian when not promoting Fosters was selling cigarettes.

Planes and trains had smoking sections, and smokers were catered to as valuable patrons. The perennial of any gift shop was the souvenir ashtray.

Shane Warne smokes during a press conferenec in 1995.
Shane Warne smokes during a press conferenec in 1995.

Anyone remember Fags - the lolly? Tobacco was so much a part of day-to-day life kids were sold candy cigarettes at newsagents.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that's a good thing. But in the context of a long history, smokers have been brought to an almost cold- turkey stop.

Today I find myself in a secret society, forced out of clubs and cafes, hiding down laneways, our numbers dwindling with each puff.

Smoking is banned in all enclosed public places and certain outdoor public areas around NSW, under the Smoke-free Environment Act 2000 and the Smoke-free Environment Regulation 2016.

Currently I can't even smoke a cigarette outside licensed cafes and pubs legally, or within 4m of the entry of any public building.

Smoking was once considered so normal newsagents sold candy cigarettes for children.
Smoking was once considered so normal newsagents sold candy cigarettes for children.

Public pools, sporting grounds, shopping centres, public transport stops and platforms, including taxi ranks and all commercial outdoor dining areas are out of bounds. Goodbye freedom.

In a year-long City of Sydney smoke-free trial in Martin Place, four out of five people surveyed supported the trial and supported an extension of the trial to other areas of the city.

On top of that, in NSW, anything that gives publicity to, or promotes the purchase or use of tobacco can be considered a "tobacco advertisement".

Allan Border holds aloft the Benson and Hedges World Series Cricket trophy in 1988.
Allan Border holds aloft the Benson and Hedges World Series Cricket trophy in 1988.

Even this article you're reading cannot be seen to encourage smoking. It can't reproduce old ads or show scenes of smoking unless it is in a negative context.

Even to speak of how, historically, smoking was made cool by Hollywood stars and the ever-present fug in dimly-lit jazz clubs runs the risk of glorifying it.

The Daily Telegraph’s report on Australian cricketers Shaun Marsh and Jackson Bird smoking.
The Daily Telegraph’s report on Australian cricketers Shaun Marsh and Jackson Bird smoking.

Yet everyone wants a piece of this "dirty habit". According to analysis by comparison website Finder.com.au, smokers usually pay 50 per cent more on their monthly life insurance premiums than non-smokers.

When I started smoking, more than 15 years ago, cigarette packs cost a measly $8, instead of the overtaxed $40 you pay now (the government managed to rake in $10.69 billion in tobacco excise last year alone). No one had heard of plain packaging and, if you really wanted, you could shop up a cigarette storm at duty free. Now you're allowed to bring just a packet or two into the country.

Since then I have travelled across the globe from Samoa to Sweden, Antarctica to Abu Dhabi, Berlin to Bondi - and never felt so shunned as a smoker than here, in judgment town Australia.

Maybe it's because we are a nation of fitness freaks, of sex and skin, that we care so much about our health that we choose to rain judgment upon those who light up.

At a New Year's Eve party I found myself stuck in an incredibly frustrating conversation with a non-smoker who "just didn't get it". I sat there and listened with gritted teeth while she criticised me for my choices in life. Happy new year, me.

A smoker in Sydney’s Pitt Street mall.
A smoker in Sydney’s Pitt Street mall.

Last year I was regularly sprayed with a Super Soaker by a crazy yogi whose studio sat above a quiet smoking spot I would adjourn to. Today, it's a wasteland devoid of smokers.

Now, I'm all for quitting and getting off the cigs, but in my own time and when I want to.

According to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, daily smoking rates for Australians aged 18 and over dropped from 20 per cent in 2001 to 13 per cent in 2016. People who have quit smoking outnumber people who currently smoke: in 2016, 61 per cent of people who had ever smoked had quit. The last national health survey in 2014-15 found 2.6 million adults (14.5 per cent) smoked daily, down from almost 25 per cent in 1995.

The writing is on the wall for cigarettes as we know them, but it won't mean the end of bad habits.

A national survey of adolescent drug use in the US found while cigarette smoking had dropped, marijuana use had risen.

A ranger looks at a no smoking sign in Martin Place, Sydney, which is currently a no smoking zone. Picture: Dylan Robinson.
A ranger looks at a no smoking sign in Martin Place, Sydney, which is currently a no smoking zone. Picture: Dylan Robinson.

One of the world's biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris, has already announced plans to "quit" for good, and hopes to stop production of cigarettes, in place of vapes and heated tobacco products, by 2020 in a bid for a "smoke free" Australia.

"I hope by 2020 we stop selling conventional cigarettes if not completely, then handing them over to someone else to worry about," Paul Riley, president of Philip Morris Japan, told me last month. "If we can go hard enough, we'll be close by the end of 2020 not to have to sell the conventional product (cigarettes).

"The reality is you can't get away from the fact the WHO (World Health Organisation) itself says that even if they continue with the same methods they have today, like plain packaging, higher taxes, the number of people smoking in 20 years' time is not going to be too much different from today."

I try to hide my smoking as best I can these days. I'd rather a cigarette in silence than socially. It's become my own secret shame in a weird way.

It seems I might be fighting a losing battle.

News Corp Australia


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