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Now Oz to ban online cigarette ads

Or to ban internet deals for cheap smokes ... we're not sure

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Once a government has become used to the idea of banning things, it can be a hard habit to give up – as Australian voters who still enjoy the occasional cigarette are likely to soon find out.

This time last week, Down Under's Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, stood up in the Australian parliament and introduced a new Bill – the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Bill 2010 (pdf) – that would make it an offence to advertise cigarettes and other tobacco products on the internet.

It is not entirely clear just how wide a ban the government has in mind. The bill itself is full of the incomprehensible legalese with which public servants seem to enjoy baffling the public. For instance, "the heading to section 10 is altered by omitting 'a tobacco advertisement' and substituting 'a tobacco advertisement'". This is pure Marx brothers!

There is also some difference of emphasis between the words with which the minister introduced the bill and the accompanying press release. According to Roxon, the bill "seeks to make it an offence to advertise tobacco products on the internet and in other electronic media".

That sounds pretty comprehensive and no-nonsense. However the accompanying release from the Australian Department for Health states only: "Prohibiting retailers from peddling cigarettes as 'cheap' or 'tax-free' on the internet is the latest step in the Gillard Government’s hard-hitting and comprehensive action to reduce Australia’s smoking rates."

So: either this is a complete ban on advertising tobacco products to Australians – or it is a partial ban directed at advertising cheap tobacco products. So far, so unclear.

There is, too, the slight issue of who will be affected by this proposed law.

According to the new section 15A of the Bill, a person commits an offence if they publish, authorise or cause to be published a tobacco advertisement electronically, in Australia.

This does not just cover Australian citizens. Rather, as the next section makes clear, "publication in Australia" applies not only where an ad originates in Australia, but the advertisement has an Australian link and it is accessible, or intended to be accessible by the public, or a section of the public, in Australia.

So does that mean UK companies trying to sell cigarettes through Australian subsidiaries are going to be in trouble? We really couldn’t say, as at this point it would appear that section 16A would apply. Despite spending some time poring over the wording of this section, we still can’t make head or tail of it.

So there you have it: cigarette advertising in Australia could soon be illegal. Or not. It all depends on how you interpret the small print of the proposed legislation.

Meanwhile, that horrid sing-song somewhere off-stage is the sound of all those who have been opposing Australia’s firewall plans warbling "we told you so".

For once, however, the Australian censors lag behind the UK. According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, the UK made internet advertising of cigarettes and tobacco unlawful some time back – in 2006, to be precise – courtesy of an amendment to the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002. ®

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