Out of the Cabinet

By Ian Warden

Get a different take on Cabinet records! This year, Canberra journalist Ian Warden has immersed himself in the policy decisions made by the 1980–81 Fraser government. In this Out of the Cabinet series, Ian highlights particular documents that captured his imagination and provides insightful comments.

Tobacco in Australia: an addicted society?

Why smoke your life away?
Why smoke your life away? (NAA: A6135, K27/4/79/37)

In Australia we live in tobacco-hostile and even smoker-hostile times, with governments allowing smokers fewer and fewer places where they may legally light up. And now the Australian Government is poised to force tobacco companies to sell their cigarettes in totally plain, totally unalluring packets (favouring a shade of 'ugly olive green') that further reduce cigarettes' appeal. As they fight the proposal, how wistfully the tobacco companies (and their increasingly marginalised customers, the smokers) must look back to the relatively tobacco-tolerant Australia of the 1980s.

Cabinet records for 1980, released by the National Archives of Australia earlier this year, show the Fraser government taking what seems by today's aggressively anti-smoking standards a very tentative (but still cautiously pioneering) approach to tobacco and the effect of smoking on human health.

On 17 March 1980 Cabinet at last made some decisions about the 69 recommendations proposed in the 1977 report of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, Drug Problems in Australia: an intoxicated society? (Decision 10907). 

The report had an anxious, hair-raising, action-urging tone – as well as tobacco matters, it investigated the ravages of alcohol, analgesics, cannabis, amphetamines and barbiturates. It noted that 'Australians continue to smoke 28 million cigarettes a month' even though 'the dangers of smoking have been widely publicised', and that evidence showed that smoking contributed to about 11,500 deaths a year.

But Cabinet reacted cautiously and conservatively to the report. It accepted only four of its 17 recommendations on tobacco, sidestepping or sometimes explicitly rejecting some that today seem unremarkable.

Cancer country

The Senate Standing Committee report recommended a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising, including 'Big Tobacco's' corporate sponsorship of events. However Cabinet rejected this, and so, for example, until the mid-1980s Australia's most important tennis event was called the Marlboro Australian Open. During the 1984 men's final, an anti-smoking activist ridiculed the 'Marlboro Country' slogan by skywriting 'Cancer Country' above the Open's venue at Kooyong.

The Senate Standing Committee report wanted the Australian Government to 'make any grants to sporting and cultural bodies conditional on their not accepting money from manufacturers and retailers of tobacco products'. This recommendation was rejected by Cabinet.

You've got your own cigarette now, baby

Precursor to plain packaging
Precursor to plain packaging (NAA: A12909, 3838)

But of the four recommendations Cabinet did accept, one – the recommendation that tar and nicotine contents be stated on cigarette packets – was shyly pioneering.

The Senate Standing Committee, pessimistic about the chances of getting people to stop smoking altogether, had accepted expert evidence which implied that if only smokers would transfer their allegiances to low-tar/low-nicotine brands, the health consequences would be less catastrophic. Cabinet's acceptance of the recommendation began to prepare the way for the transformed cigarette packets of today, which brandish frank government messages (with shocking colour photographs of disease-ravaged lips and blinded eyes) about smoking's deadly dangers.

But in 1980, although there was already some labelling of the tar content of tobacco products, a cigarette packet was overwhelmingly a brand's beguiling advertisement for its contents. And the packet's colours, logos and slogans were echoed and reinforced by television, radio and other advertising that is banned today.

Some cigarette advertising jingles of yesteryear were so artful that they linger on in the memories of those who heard them. One is the Philip Morris jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes – launched in 1968 exclusively for 'liberated' women – 'You've got your own cigarette now, baby. You've come a long, long way'. The Virginia Slims cigarettes, in those days before plain packets with warnings were dreamed of, came in an alluring, feminine, soft-coloured 'purse pack'.

Huddled, wind-buffeted smokers

Sponsorship up in smoke
Sponsorship up in smoke (NAA: A12909, 3838)

Cabinet's 1980 caution seems eccentric to us today, but then smoking was still commonplace (there were surely smokers among members of Cabinet). The 1977 report fancied that 41 per cent of males and 29 per cent of females were smokers (2007 data found that 18 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women smoked every day). And in 1980 smoking was allowed in a majority of workplaces, including Parliament House in Canberra where Cabinet met.

Although by 1980 some state governments were moving to ban smoking on public transport, smokers were generally used to the freedom to smoke in almost all public places, including restaurants and, incredibly for us in enlightened 2011, hospitals.

And it wasn't until the late 1980s that the Australian Public Service set a bold moral example by banning smoking in absolutely all of its offices. This created the phenomenon of the huddles of smokers sharing the camaraderie of their vice, often buffeted by wind and rain, we see outside office blocks today.

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019