In January, Morgan Stanley Europe distributed a 56-page analysis of the future of the tobacco industry in which it outlined the industry’s greatest anxieties: excise tax rises, proposals to require all cigarettes be sold in plain “generic” packs and to be retailed from under the counter, as now occurs in Thailand and Saskatchewan, Canada.

Australia has a tougher package of tobacco control laws than almost any nation, and falling smoking and lung-cancer rates to show for it. But despite this experience, Australian governments are still treating the endgame of tobacco control with kid gloves.

In a policy dance that would delight Dr Doolittle’s Pushme-Pullyou creature, the Tasmanian Government has issued an amendment to its Public Health Act.

Soon Tasmanian police will be empowered to arrest adults smoking in cars carrying children if they refuse to butt out. While cars-with-children smoking bans and fines have the support of the public health community, getting über-tough with smokers rather than the tobacco industry is hairy-chested nonsense.

Tasmania is the only state where smoking is rising, thanks to under-funded quit campaigns. And the Government has just refused to ban the display of tobacco products even though Coles in Tasmania has moved them out of sight.

Meanwhile, imagine how long it would take any government to pounce on a confectionary manufacturer trying to sell a chocolate hypodermic syringe to kids. The national Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy has taken two years to get around to agreeing to “consider” banning the importation of both fruit- and confectionary-flavoured cigarettes.

The minnow DJ Mix imported brand, which features a range of flavoured cigarettes that smell and taste like a sweet shop, are the soft target of its concern. Tellingly, even the tobacco majors like British American Tobacco are supportive.

But look at the ingredient information for Philip Morris, BAT and Imperial, where chemical-additive flavourings are listed which the companies are prepared to reveal under a current voluntary disclosure agreement with government.

Mainstream brands are pickled in the same sort of flavourants that DJ Mix is up-front about. The companies know that a spoonful of sugar helps the tobacco smoke go down with young people who, when starting to smoke, find the harsh taste and “mouth feel” of smoke a turn-off.

Philip Morris’s Alpine has menthol flavour designed to mask harshness, but also has added honey, sugar, cocoa, licorice and carob to the brew. Oddly enough, Philip Morris’s website doesn’t list an ingredient called “Alpine exotic” which its internal correspondence shows it imports from the US to add to the cocktail. Nor does the Marlboro ingredient listing reveal if the lip-smacking “Marlboro Concentrate” is still added, as a 1981 telex revealed.

As I argued in 2005, if Australian governments act to stop fruit-flavoured products like DJ Mix because the company importing it is up-front in promoting it as a flavoured brand, how can they continue to allow mainstream brands with more flavours than a Darrell Lea hamper to be sold on the wink that these flavours are added — but not flaunted on the pack and found only on an obscure website at the end of cyberspace?

Flavouring additives are a Trojan horse for the industry. It tries to frame the argument in terms of inviolable, patented brand “recipes” intrinsic to the appeal of each brand. Deconstructed, this commercial-law smokescreen allows it to use flavourants and additives to make smoking as palatable as possible to those starting to smoke, 80% of whom are children.

The DJ Mix fiasco shows how any opportunistic company can exploit this regulatory desert and openly give a finger to government policy on deterring kids from smoking before they will act. Will health ministers take the easy route and simply squash the bothersome gnat, or will they confront the central problem of the regulatory no man’s land that allows all tobacco companies to add literally whatever they like to their products and be accountable to no one?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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