Calls from Indigenous people to smoking ‘Quit’ lines have increased dramatically from last year – up by 45 per cent – due to the introduction of plain packaging, a tobacco expert panel told a national conference in Canberra last month.
Around 220 delegates from across Australia met in Canberra in December over four days to hear from tobacco and healthy lifestyle experts, and to share ideas and initiatives that work to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders quit smoking and prevent and manage chronic disease.
The Tackling Indigenous Smoking and Promoting Healthy Lifestyles National Workshop brought together work teams funded under the Australian Government’s initiative to tackle smoking and chronic disease in Indigenous communities.
Professor Mike Daube, a Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University where he is Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute and the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, delivered a keynote address as part of the National Tobacco Technical Reference Group session at the conference. Professor Daube has extensive national and international experience in public health.
Professor Daube told the conference that everyone has a right to be angry that smoking is still being pushed by the tobacco industry, despite clear evidence as far back as 1950 that smoking kills: “It is a huge, preventable health problem.”
Professor Daube told delegates that they were directly responsible for Indigenous people quitting smoking.
“In the future there will be people who quit smoking because of the work you are doing now and every day. You may not get to know about them, but they will quit because of your activity. It’s important you stay with your role,” he says.
Another member of the panel, Professor Ron Borland, believes the challenge for delegates, and for public health, is to help smokers quit successfully. Professor Borland PhD is the Nigel Gray Distinguished Fellow in Cancer Prevention, at the Cancer Council Victoria, Australia, where he has worked for more than 25 years. He has over 280 peer-reviewed publications, mostly related to aspects of tobacco control.
Like Professor Daube, he believes that plain packaging is working. “You take the branding imagery off the pack, you can still buy a particular brand but the imagery remains in your mind,” he says.
“People who avoid looking at the health warnings on a pack of cigarettes are often the same people who think of the harms of smoking the most, and they are the ones who make more attempts at quitting. The best way is to quit, then you don’t have to think about the images on cigarette packs any more.
“The graphic ads are now giving a sense of what the harm is, and what you are doing yourself by smoking. They are communicating a sense of danger.”
There is a strong place for information campaigns to prevent uptake of smoking – just trying to get smokers to quit is not enough.
“We need to see smoking as an adult issue. If we target the adults, the kids will hear the messages. Kids become adults and hopefully they will not aspire to smoke when they become adults,” he says.
“Smoke-free rules (zones) also have an important role in making smoking less socially acceptable.”
Tools and strategies to help smokers quit were also discussed at the conference, and Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), which is helping smokers quit.
“More and more smokers are trying to quit through NRT, Quitlines and internet-based resources. About 40 per cent of the [smoking] community attempt to quit each month and we need to work towards that target in the Aboriginal community,” Professor Borland says.
“The approximate rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people show a small reduction over the last few years, but they are twice that when compared to the rest of the community.”
Financial stress, depression and disadvantage make it more difficult to quit smoking. Working with Indigenous communities who have suffered, for example the Stolen Generations, will mean these communities will require more support to quit smoking.
Professor Borland dispelled the popular myth that smoking eases stress.
“Non-smokers report being less stressed than a smoker. A smoker’s stress might be better for the five minutes they are having a cigarette, but in the long run, cigarettes make that stress worse… There are short-term benefits and long-term consequences of smoking,” he says.
The national conference also heard from healthy lifestyle experts and many innovative initiatives were profiled at the conference, including community gardens and door-to-door distribution of fresh tucker in Western Sydney.
Keynote speakers ranged from tobacco researchers through to social marketing experts. Many of the delegates showcased the initiatives they are delivering in their communities that are resulting in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living healthier lifestyles – and in a reduction in smoking rates.