Tobacco use exacerbates poverty and poverty is associated with higher tobacco use. Photo: public domain

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By Allison Hore

While national smoking rates are on the decline, some parts of Sydney have smoking rates unmatched by the national average since the 1980s.

The Australian Health Policy Collaboration, which comprises more than 50 leading health organisations in Australia, has set a target for 5 percent smoking rates by 2025. Currently the national smoking rate stands at 14 percent.

And while some areas of NSW are well on their way to meet that target, new data compiled by Melbourne University’s Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy shows that some suburbs still have a way to go.

Large spans of Sydney’s western suburbs lag behind the national average, with some parts of the Blacktown area’s smoking rates unmatched at a national level since 1988. More than a third of people in Mt Druitt and a fifth of those in Fairfield are smokers.

“Parts of NSW are caught in a time warp, where large parts of the state have smoking rates between 18 and 31 years behind the rest of the population,” said Ben Harris, Health Policy Lead at the Mitchell Institute.

“Smoking kills, and it looks like around five times more people are going to die in Mount Druitt and Tamworth than in Kuring-Gai in inner Sydney.”

Affluence affects inhalation

In inner Sydney there are around 24,000 smokers. This number accounts for 12 percent of the total population of the region. Some of the areas of Sydney with the highest smoking rates are Blacktown, Penrith, Fairfield, Campbelltown, Liverpool and Bankstown.

On the other hand, Sydney’s affluent North Shore has some of the lowest smoking rates in the state. Kuring-gai, Willoughby, Lane Cove, Mosman and North Sydney rank as the healthiest neighborhoods – between 7 and 9 percent.

The link between areas of poorer socioeconomic status and smoking has long being known, and in NSW it’s no different. Regional and rural areas with populations earning less average income than those in wealthier suburbs have the highest proportion of smokers.

“In Australia and many other countries, smoking behaviour is inversely related to socio-economic status, with disadvantaged groups in the population being more likely to take up and continue smoking,” said Cancer Council Victoria in their report on tobacco use in Australia.

In Mount Kuring-Gai, the suburb with NSW’s lowest smoking rates according to the Mitchell Center report, the median household income sat at $2022 in 2016. Simultaneously, Mt Druitt, the suburb with the highest smoking rate in the state, the median household income was $1268.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2016 revealed that Australians living in remote and outer regional areas and those most disadvantaged economically were more likely to be current smokers. While those who were least socioeconomically disadvantaged or living in inner cities were the least likely to be current smokers.

And the trend isn’t only in Australia, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) noting that studies from other parts of the world have also shown that smoking and other forms of tobacco usage are sgnificantly higher among the poor.

The WHO warn: “Tobacco and poverty have become linked in a vicious circle, through which tobacco exacerbates poverty and poverty is also associated with higher prevalence of tobacco use.”

Public health advocate Simon Chapman agrees. He told the Sydney Morning Herald he believes disadvantaged families have an intergenerational problem with smoking.

“When you are born into a family where there’s smoking by parents, relatives and visitors, there are very different cues to start smoking than when no one in your family smokes,” he said.

The smouldering issue

The Mitchell Institute released their report to coincide with World No Tobacco Day on May 31 when NSW Health also announced an investment of $13.5 million to be spent on tobacco control across the state. This will include support for those wishing to quit smoking, enforcement of smoke-free laws, targeted programs for vulnerable groups and public awareness education campaigns.

While national campaigns for plain packaging and price hikes on tobacco have had some success, Mitchell Institute’s Ben Harris says that health policy needs to focus on the local factors that influence smoking rates in some areas if it is going to be successful.

Harris suggests that this research, which breaks down smoking rates by area, can assist governments to better allocate their limited advertising and health services funding to the communities most in need.

“We know where we live, where we work and who we know influences smoking. We also know that the best way to stop children picking up the habit is to support the adults around them to quit smoking,” he said.

“It’s important that Quit campaigns and health professionals target their messaging to specific communities where smoking rates remain stubbornly high.”