Does Mark Butler care about low-income middle aged smokers?

Posted on August 10, 2023 By Colin

NEW RESEARCH PUBLISHED today in Health Economics found that poor, middle-aged Australians are more likely to die from cancer than other Australians and the gap is widening. The obvious and major contributor is the persistent high smoking rate in this population and the low uptake of tobacco harm reduction.

National data shows that Australian smokers over the age of 40 are not quitting. This disadvantaged group has been neglected by Australia’s fabled world leading tobacco control policies. Many are dying from cancer prematurely and unnecessarily as a result.

Older smokers are not quitting

Smoking rates are not declining in older smokers. The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) found that there was no significant decline in smoking rates over the age of 40 from 2016 to 2019

A 2023 report for the Department of Health and Aged Care (DHAC)  found a small increase in smoking rates in the 50+ age group from 2018-2023 (10.3% to 10.7%).

However, smoking rates are falling in young adults, the population group with the highest vaping rates

The 2023 DHAC report found that, from 2018 to 2013, there was a 21% decline in smoking in the 18-24 year age group (vaping rate 19.8%) and 17% decline in the 25-34 year age group (vaping rate 17.4%). The vaping rate in the 50+ age group was only 2.5%.

Low-income groups most at-risk

Smoking is also more than twice as common in the lowest socioeconomic group than in the most advantaged populations (21% v 8%), according to the 2019 NDSHS and the gap is widening.

Low-income and disadvantaged groups smoke more cigarettes per day, are more nicotine dependent and have more difficulty quitting than other smokers.

Smoking is the leading cause of cancer

Smoking is responsible for 21% of the total cancer burden in Australia. Among middle-aged Australians cancer is the leading cause of death, accounting for 45% of all deaths among those aged 45 to 64 years.

The study in Health Economics found middle-aged men living in the poorest areas of Australia were twice as likely to die from cancer than those living in the richest areas. Women in the same areas were 1.6 times more likely.

The solution

Low-income middle aged smokers are a priority group but are neglected by Tobacco Control. They are just as motivated to quit as other smokers, but current strategies are clearly not succeeding.

The obvious solution for these smokers who are unable to quit is tobacco harm reduction. Vaping is the most effective quitting aid available and dramatically reduces the risk of cancer and other smoking related diseases. An increased uptake of vaping in this group could have a substantial impact on smoking rates, as it is for young adults.

The cancer risk from vaping has been estimated at 0.4% of smoking. Cancer rates would dramatically decline if more smokers switched to vaping.

Vaping is strongly supported by the leading UK cancer charity Cancer Research UK, which states clearly, "There is no good evidence that vaping causes cancer. Because vaping is far less harmful than smoking, your health could benefit from switching from smoking to vaping. And you will reduce your risk of getting cancer"

However, Australia's cancer charities stubbornly and mysteriously oppose vaping in spite of the evidence and their mission to reduce cancer

If Mark Butler is serious about reducing smoking and cancer in Australia and improving the health of middle-aged Australians, he needs to make it easier to access vaping products legally

The Australian government should encourage vaping as a safer alternative for adult smokers, just as governments in New Zealand and the United Kingdom are, with great success.

Low-income smokers are traditional Labor party supporters. How long will voters continue to support a party which stubbornly ignores the evidence and fails to protect them from a preventable, premature and agonising death?

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