However the Australian Greens and a key indigenous lobby group have called on the federal government to do more by immediately expanding a program to roll out non-sniffable Opal petrol across central Australia.
Greens leader Senator Bob Brown said Mr Howard should provide subsidies across central Australia for the new fuel, which contains very low levels of addictive aromatic hydrocarbons.
“I think everybody is concerned about that and that is why the Commonwealth government has quite a number of programs there but it’s a difficult problem,” he told reporters at Parliament House.
“It’s the result of many reasons and a lot of social dysfunction and ultimately the solution of the problem is in the hands of the communities as much as it is in the hands of governments.”
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation national director David Cooper also urged for BP’s Opal fuel rollout to be expanded as soon as possible across the Central Australian Cross Border region, after Coroner Greg Cavanagh described Opal as a practical and pragmatic solution.
Dr Cooper said in the next few years, the cost of caring for an expected extra 120 sniffers likely to acquire brain damage from petrol sniffing in the Northern Territory will be a staggering $24 million per year.
This compares with a cost of $8-9 million to extend the subsidy of Opal across the central region.
“A problem with the current federal government subsidy of Opal fuel is that it is a patchwork, leaving many communities and regional sources where sniffable petrol can be obtained,” he said.
“Two of the deaths which are the subject of the current inquiry are from communities not covered by the current Opal scheme.
“Not expanding the scheme will mean significantly higher social and economic impacts.”
The Northern Territory Coroner has been looking into the deaths last year of three young petrol sniffers in remote communities, including two at Mutitjulu, 200 metres from Uluru.
The inquest has highlighted the tragic plight of Mutitjulu, where chronic child abuse and drug use and dealing are rife in the 400-odd member community.
The coronial inquest this week heard about 10 per cent of Mutitjulu residents regularly sniff petrol, even those left in wheelchairs by their brain-killing addiction.
An AAP reporter has told of seeing a young disabled woman using a steel frame to walk having a large can of petrol tied to her face.
The inquest heard that most of the community drinks, gambles or smokes marijuana to excess, and those who don’t face social exclusion.
Child abuse is reportedly rife, with four-year-old children contracting sexually transmitted diseases and many people too afraid to take showers in their dilapidated houses for fear of being raped.
Young girls have traded sex for petrol, and many elders in the community have been sleeping in desert sand dunes for fear of violence, after their homes were taken over and trashed by sniffers.
Literacy is rare and children who do attend school arrive “starving, filthy and chronically ill”.
A key witness to the inquest, community worker Greg Andrews told of sniffing being socially ingrained at Mutitjulu.
“I’ve seen a pregnant woman sitting next to her mother with a petrol tin tied around her face and I’ve also seen mothers pushing prams with petrol tine tied to their face,” he told AAP.
He said money coming in to the community through its share of entrance fees to the Uluru national park is misspent or lost within weeks.
Traditional land owners at Mutitjulu receive a quarter of the entrance fees, gaining royalties of about $1.42 million in 2003-04, according to a national parks report.