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The recent success of the Australian Government in defending its plain packaging law in the High Court1 has prompted speculation about what might be a logical next step in tobacco control and several options for limiting accessibility to tobacco products have been debated in the Australian media. These possibilities include the introduction of a smoker licensing scheme,2 restrictions to the types or locations of outlets from which tobacco can be sold3 ,4 and a proposal that any person born since 2000 should be banned from buying tobacco products.3
Limited public opinion data on the phasing out of tobacco sales exist. In 2003, 56% of adults in Ontario, Canada, agreed that ‘cigarettes are too dangerous to be sold at all’5 and in 2004, 57% of adults from New South Wales, Australia, supported a ban on tobacco sales within 10 years.6 Among New Zealand smokers in 2008 and 2009,7 46% agreed that ‘if effective nicotine substitutes that are not smoked become available, the government should then set a date to ban cigarette sales in 10 years’ time’. Fewer New Zealand smokers (26%) agreed to a ban within a decade when the question was not prefaced with the promise of nicotine substitutes.8 Overall, 45% of English respondents in 2008 agreed that their ‘government should work towards banning the sale of tobacco completely within the next 10 years’.9 In all, 30% of Americans, 37% of Canadians and 39% of Britons in 2010 supported ‘making smoking illegal’ in their respective countries.10 During 2011, 19% of Americans responded ‘yes’ to ‘Should smoking in this country be made illegal or not?’;11 elsewhere, 43% agreed that ‘by the next decade, cigarettes should be banned in the United States’.12
In 2009 and 2010, the Victorian Smoking and Health Survey13 included questions to gauge opinion towards the phasing out of tobacco sales from retail outlets in Australia (table 1). Questions were asked as part of a broader, annual telephone survey of attitudes and behaviours relating to smoking undertaken with English-speaking adults (18+ years). The samples were generated by random digit dialling to landline telephones, with response rates of 57%. Data were weighted to known population characteristics to correct for the under-representation of young male subjects in the initial samples.
Results reveal that many Victorian adults are supportive of restrictions being placed on the sale of cigarettes. In 2009, the majority of adults (72%) and current smokers (57%) agreed that it would be a good thing if at some point in the future cigarettes were no longer available for sale. Approximately one in five smokers considered the phasing out of cigarette sales to be a bad thing.
In 2010, similar proportions of Victorian adults (71%) and smokers (58%) responded that, at some time in the future, the sale of cigarettes from retail outlets should be made illegal. Overall, 53% of adults and 42% of smokers believed a ban should occur within the next 10 years, while a quarter of adults and 38% of smokers stated that cigarette sales should never be banned.
In Australia, policy advocates and academics have only recently started to seriously debate the possibility of restricting tobacco sales.14 Given there had been relatively little public discussion on this issue at the time of the Victorian surveys, and that the questions were not predicated with the offer of nicotine substitutes, it is interesting that public support was found to be relatively high, with only a minority of smokers indicating that cigarette sales should never be banned.
The Victorian questions were asked at a time of declining smoking prevalence, sustained social marketing and widespread smoking bans.13 While social context may help to explain the differences in responses across surveys, question wording also clearly influenced reported levels of support.
The Victorian questions left ambiguity as to whether the ‘phasing out of sales from retail outlets’ would extend to banning online sales, home grown tobacco or exclude a smoker licensing scheme. Nor did they specify a timeframe for a ban: earlier dates may have greater salience to smokers, but may also seem too close to practically enforce. Smokers may believe that they will only successfully quit once sales are restricted, or be confident that they will quit prior to a ban.
Timely data are important to examine the extent to which the public now favour greater government regulation of tobacco sales. Further qualitative research is required to further explore smokers’ beliefs about what specific policy options and timeframe a ‘ban’ might entail.15 As advocates, researchers and policy makers start to explore options for an ‘endgame’7 in tobacco control, it will be important to better understand smokers’ views and continue to monitor public opinion on this issue.
Many Victorian adults and smokers are supportive of restrictions being placed on the sale of cigarettes in the future.
Further research on smokers’ beliefs about specific policy options and timeframes relating to the phasing out of tobacco sales is required.
Contributors All authors (MS, LH, MW) of this research letter have directly participated in the planning, execution or analysis of the study and have read and approved this, the final version of the research letter.
Funding Quit Victoria.
Competing interests None.
Patient consent Verbal consent was obtained from respondents at the start of telephone interviews.
Ethics approval Ethics approval was obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the Cancer Council Victoria (HREC 0018).
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.