As part of its World No Tobacco Day Awards, the World Health Organization has recognised Health Minister, Nicola Roxon.

According to the WHO, she has been awarded the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition certificate (with a ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra this morning).

Meanwhile, the Acting CEO of VicHealth, Associate Professor John Fitzgerald, puts the case below for a focus today on social smokers.


The problem with “just one”

John Fitzgerald writes:

Every year the theme underpinning World No Tobacco Day is basic: kick the cancer sticks and live longer. This message is targeted at regular smokers, but what about those people who puff a few ciggies on a Saturday night over a drink with friends?

It’s a common observation that people tend to smoke more when drinking. Some of these people belong in the dubious category of social or occasional smokers.

Here’s what we know about social smokers. Quit Victoria data tells us 4 per cent of people smoke weekly or less than weekly. In a survey by the Cancer Council Research Group, over the past 10 years, the number of ‘irregular’ smokers has grown significantly from 0.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent. I suspect even this group are under-represented because they tend not to see themselves as smokers.

They smoke to celebrate and because it seems to go so well with a drink. They feel they don’t need to quit, because they’re not addicted. That repulsive gangrenous foot and cancer-rotted lung on the cigarette pack will never belong to them.

With the eradication of point-of-sale displays in Victoria last year, and the world-first introduction of plain cigarette packaging in Australia soon to be implemented, tobacco companies will lose their last visible marketing tools. So now, more than ever, these companies need to rely on the highly addictive properties of their product.

Tobacco companies know just how addictive nicotine is. A social smoker will argue that they can give up at any time, but a University of Wisconsin study found that 50 per cent of occasional smokers were still smoking four years later.

It’s not just the amount you smoke, it’s the length of time you’ve been smoking that is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer.

In 2009, tobacco company Phillip Morris’s Australian branch posted a $47 million profit, up 20 per cent from 2008. Despite all the efforts of health agencies and a steady decline in smoking rates, these companies continue to lure new customers. Tobacco hooks customers in a way that no other product can. Once they are addicted, the industry generally has decades of loyalty as a result.

The fact is that even those who have quit smoking often relapse while drinking alcohol and most people who continue to smoke, smoke more when drinking.

Previously unpublished data from a 2009 VicHealth community attitudes survey of 1500 Victorians shows that 70 per cent of smokers smoke more when they drink, particularly people aged under 40. Among young women aged 16 to 34, this figure was 88 per cent. And similarly, 89 per cent of binge drinkers said they smoked more when drinking.

Smoking and drinking at the same time is proven to increase the chance of developing mouth and throat cancer – in some Australian studies, by a whopping 35 times.  It has been linked to an increased risk of mouth, throat and liver cancers.

How can any social smoker who knows this information still argue that it’s harmless?

Being an ‘every so often’ smoker doesn’t make you immune to cancer, heart disease and all of the other nasty health problems that result from inhaling cigarette smoke. There is no safe level of smoking, not even one every so often. After all, non-smokers get sick and die just from passive smoking: 141 a year at last count.

The next time you light up with a drink in hand, perhaps it would be wise to stub it out and breathe easier knowing you aren’t a victim to the tobacco companies’ ploys and you have made the choice to live healthily and to live longer.

• For help with quitting, call the Quit info line on 13 78 48 or visit