Public Health Policy: Tobacco and Alcohol

I wish to speak this afternoon on the evils that pertain to the nanny state. In the eternal war against the Left, our opponents take many forms—unwashed student socialists on campus, latte-sipping hipsters in trendy inner-city hangouts, bureaucrats, leftie journalists, and Labor and Green politicians in their ivory towers of condescension. The one thing they all have in common is their hostility towards the fundamental principles that we fight for as warriors of freedom: the liberty of the individual, a free market, small government and low taxes. As I have said before in this place, the simple statement by the Irish politician and freedom fighter in the middle of the Second World War, James Dillon, that 'democracy, freedom and liberty must always be defended' rings loud as a battle cry for those of us who stand for this axis of enlightenment.

In Australia today, the war against the Left is being waged on numerous fronts, particularly in relation to freedom of enterprise, freedom of speech and individual liberty. Indeed, this nanny state approach advocated by the Left, founded upon feigned moral outrage and a government-knows-best mentality, should only embolden us to champion our cause for freedom.

Let me run through a few particularly grievous nanny state issues. Tobacco is the go-to baddie of the so-called public health advocates. While I do not for a moment deny the health effects of tobacco, it is up to the individual to decide for themselves whether they wish to smoke or not smoke. It is also up to us to open to debate the ways in which government should regulate and dictate what adults can do to their bodies with an otherwise legal product. Taxes on tobacco have been jacked up over recent years, mostly as a cover for the former Labor government's fiscal recklessness. Smoking bans have been extended to malls and footpaths and there have been moves to ban smoking on entire university campuses, such as the proposals at the Queensland University of Technology and the current ban at the Australian National University.

Then there is plain packaging. It has stripped businesses of their right to brand and market a legal product, and has increased sales of illegal tobacco, otherwise called chop-chop. It is the antithesis of freedom for government to interfere with the rights of businesses to market their products, whether it is tobacco, alcohol or stuffed animals. It is an attack on free speech and the intellectual property rights of law-abiding businesses and should be condemned.

A KPMG report into illicit tobacco, released in October 2014, found that between July 2013 and June 2014 the proportion of chop-chop increased from 13.5 per cent to 14.3 per cent of total tobacco consumption, and the illegal importation of tobacco has increased from 0.5 million kilograms in 2012 to 1.3 million kilograms today. Given rising tax rates and the growth in chop-chop, it is not even clear that smoking rates are falling any faster than the long-term trend—the stated aim of the scheme. Throw in the cost of litigation in the High Court and overseas, expected to be well over $50 million, and one has to wonder whether the plain packaging experiment has been worth the trouble.

In typical do-gooder fashion, e-cigarettes, which may actually be a key tool in decreasing addiction and lung cancer rates, have been demonised. E-cigarettes, for those who do not know, are battery-powered nicotine vaporisers. They do not contain tobacco or produce smoke, but rather use a nicotine vapour which produces a similar effect to smoking without the health risks caused by the toxins in traditional cigarettes. Indeed, a review from King's College London and the Queen Mary University of London, released earlier this month, found that most of the chemicals causing smoking-related disease are absent from e-cigarettes and the chemicals that are present pose limited danger, making e-cigarettes about 90 per cent safer than smoking. Despite this, there are restrictions on the sale and use of e-cigarettes and associated vapour in Australia. The balance of evidence does not support this unjustified government restriction on e-cigarettes, which should be reconsidered.

There have also been calls from the Left to extend taxes and restrictions on junk food to protect Australians from themselves. But the effectiveness of widespread behavioural taxation is highly questionable. In 2011 the Danish government introduced the world's first fat tax as a measure to promote healthy lifestyles. It was an abysmal failure—scrapped after only 15 months after it was shown that consumers merely bought cheaper brands rather than healthier food. It is a tax failure that would make even the Australian Labor Party blush. Rather than restrict food ads during children's television, parents should be left responsible for their own family eating habits.

Alcohol restrictions, to combat so-called binge drinking, have been hotly contested of late, with the Helen Lovejoys and Maude Flanders of the world shrieking, 'Won't somebody please think of the children!' But the nanny statists are way off. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the long-term trend for alcohol consumption has been declining, falling more than 20 per cent per capita over the last 40 years. Alcohol tax changes have merely changed drinking preferences and led to greater at-home drinking.

Then there are the calls for greater restrictions on alcohol at licensed venues and lockouts. The facts and evidence do not support such government intervention. Lockouts were a failed experiment in Melbourne and have had unintended consequences since they were introduced in Sydney, with patrons going elsewhere and increasing crowding on the street. Restricting trade in lockout areas also has an adverse effect on jobs, particularly for young people, limiting and damaging the hospitality and entertainment industries. This is all for little gain in terms of reduced violence.

In 2012 a Queensland government report found that the vast majority of ambulance calls for alcohol-related violence occurred before 3 am in Fortitude Valley and even earlier in Surfers Paradise, suggesting that a curfew would be ineffective at improving safety. Of the 50,000 patrons who visit Fortitude Valley in Brisbane on weekend nights, only 33 arrests are made on average—a microscopic 0.066 per cent. It is wrong to penalise the vast majority of law-abiding partygoers for the behaviour of a few knuckleheads. Instead of punishing the many for the sins of the few, we should seek to change the culture amongst young people to ensure that they take greater personal responsibility for their own individual actions.

The Liberal-National Party in Queensland gets this issue. The Safe Night Out strategy that they implemented created 15 Safe Night Out precincts in key entertainment areas across Queensland, stretching from Cairns to the Gold Coast. These areas have greater use of ID scanners to coordinate and identify perpetual troublemakers, increased policing powers and supportive places such as sober safe centres to help patrons. In addition, crimes were toughened up to deal with drunken assaults, the liquor licensing regime was enhanced and education was introduced for young Queenslanders still at high school to promote responsible behaviour with alcohol. This coordinated approach is making inroads into alcohol related violence in Queensland.

In stark contrast, the Labor Palaszczuk government plans to introduce a damaging policy in Queensland: 1 am lockouts, stopping service of alcohol at 3 am, and bans on high alcohol content drinks, including shots, after midnight. While that may entice the teetotallers in our community, law-abiding Queenslanders, both young and old, should not have to put up with this. The Labor Palaszczuk government should recant its nanny statism and leave the Liberal-National parties' Safe Night Out Strategy in place.

Finally, I would like to comment on mandatory bicycle helmet laws, because despite numerous concerns about safety the evidence does not suggest that overall health outcomes are actually improved. Obesity rates in Australia are climbing faster than anywhere else in the world. Yet Australia is only one of two countries in the world with national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws. British research suggests life years gained through cycling outweigh years lost in cycling fatalities by a factor of 20 to one. A recent study of the users of Barcelona's public bike hire scheme put this ratio at 77 to one. A recent survey from University of Sydney Professor Chris Rissel found that amending helmet laws to allow adult cyclists free choice would lead to an approximate doubling of cycling numbers in Sydney. London's 'Boris Bikes' provide an example of the relatively high safety levels of public bicycle hire schemes in countries without compulsory bike helmet laws. Of the 19½ million trips taken on Boris Bikes over the first three years of operation, there has been only one fatality, with no other life-threatening or life-changing injuries.

A Queensland parliamentary committee report in November 2013 recommended that people over 16 years of age can choose whether or not to wear helmet if they are riding on footpaths, bike paths or on roads where speeds are limited to 60 kilometres an hour or below, and if they are hiring a bike, like in Brisbane's public bike hire scheme. If you are riding a bike without wearing a helmet in Queensland during magpie season, you are probably a bit of a nutter, but that should be your choice as an individual to make. I would like to commend the Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Australian Institute for Progress and No Curfew for their work in defending the freedom agenda. If we are to ban anything, it should not be freedom of choice but the nanny state.