We should thank the smokers. Instead we make them miserable
The following is an editorial (856 words) written by Louis Houlbrooke, Director of Campaigns for the Taxpayers Union.
The next time you make your way through a cloud of secondhand smoke, think about the plight of the poor turf that breathed it out.
The average smoker earns less, has poorer mental health, and will live less than the rest of us. They face social stigma, limited employment opportunities, and all of the inconveniences and anxieties that come with treating an addiction.
And the holy smokes pay for it. Annual tax hikes have taken even the cheapest cigarettes to $ 30 a pack, 80% of which goes directly to the tax authorities.
In total, smokers inject around $ 2 billion a year in excise duty and GST to fund schools, roads, puppies for the blind, parliamentary playgrounds, etc. – much more than they cost the health system. Instead of giving them dirty looks, we should be giving them medals for service to taxpayers.
The darker side of the tax is that it makes already poor families even poorer. When taxes are taken from the budget of a low-income household, it means less for children’s school meals, shoes and extracurricular activities. This is enough to make a child want to smoke.
Fortunately, the government now seems to recognize that tobacco taxes have gone quite far. This year was the first in a decade that the tobacco tax did not rise above the rate of inflation.
What changed? Perhaps that was the warning of the Task Force on Taxation against increasing taxes on the poor. Or the wave of often violent dairy thefts, driven by the exorbitant value of stolen durries. Perhaps most important is the growing consensus within public health circles that, have reduced the smoking rate to 13%, we are now dealing with the most serious addicts for whom price is not an issue.
However, the government is stuck with the optimistic Smokefree 2025 target set a decade ago by politicians who likely knew they would not yet be in power at the time of the crisis. Officially, reaching Smokefree 2025 means the smoking rate is below 5%.
It is with this objective in mind that the government has unveiled new proposals to replace the excise tax increases. It turns out that rigid adherence to a brutal 10-year goal is not a formula for sane policy.
The most striking suggestion – this would be a world first – is to force tobacco companies to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes.
The government should ask itself why other countries have not attempted this. First of all: Nicotine can be addictive, but it’s not what kills people. It would be the tar and the other by-products of combustion. Cigarettes with reduced nicotine would be just as harmful as full strength cigarettes, but a smoker would have to blow more sticks to get the same buzz.
That means more tar and more taxes. Even if this prompts a few fringe smokers to quit, is it really a victory for public health if the remaining smokers step up their smoking habit and the associated health risks?
Then there is the proposal to restrict the places where cigarettes are sold. It’s hard to see how that would deter a smoker from buying darts if they’ve already put up with a decade of tax hikes. This would of course be a godsend for supermarkets or pharmacies which provide local monopolies on tobacco sales, while small dairies on the verge of profitability would go bankrupt without the visit of smokers who make additional purchases.
Next comes a proposal to ban anyone born after a certain date from buying smoke, meaning even smokers in their 40s or 50s will be identified every time they buy a pack. The idea is to create a “smoke-free generation”, but we already have one – 15-17 year olds have a smoking rate of only 3% and falling, well below the 2025 smoke-free threshold. Perspective, Maori women have a 32 percent smoking rate.
Perhaps the nastiest proposition is to ban filters on cigarettes. Although filtered is certainly not sure, they better than the alternative. At best, banning filters will only make smokers miserable; at worst, it will kill them. Welcome to Smokefree Aotearoa!
There is an overall failure that applies to all of these proposals: they will only affect legal cigarettes.
Already, thanks to the exorbitant taxes on legal tobacco, one in ten cigarettes smoked in New Zealand is illegal – either grown domestically or illegally smuggled from Asia in suitcases and shipping containers. Imagine how this black market will flourish once it is the only source of full-strength filtered tobacco.
In fact, the Department of Health even indicated that the proposals will increase illicit trade, requiring reinforced measures (probably costly) to crack down on the black market.
So should we just give up on the smoke-free dream? Not at all, although the 2025 deadline is unrealistic. Smokers are more and more work for themselves that they can pass death sticks and switch to vaping, which is estimated to be 95% safer.
We should celebrate this. All the government needs to do is lighten its plans regulate the bajesus vaping products. Meanwhile, we can do our part by casting a little less judgment on the guy blowing blueberry clouds on smoko.
Louis Houlbrooke is the Director of Campaigns for the Taxpayers Union and is a vapoteur. For disclosure, about 10 percent of the Taxpayers Union’s total income comes from membership in the industry, a subset of which is tobacco.
Submissions on Government Proposals for Smoke Free 2025 can be done here.
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