Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Stub out the peddlers of the habit

Instead of pussyfooting around with taxes and plain packages, why not simply ban noxious tobacco?

What is the powerful hold international tobacco peddlers seem to have over governments around the world? The New Zealand Government is delaying plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes for fear the cigarette giants will go to court claiming a breach of some trade treaty or other. It's going to wait to see the outcome of Australia's fight at both the World Trade Organisation and in the courts with tobacco giant Philip Morris over the same issue.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia says the legal challenges could cost taxpayers up to $6 million. But that's only if we play their games. Why not stop pussyfooting around and spend the money instead on outlawing their killer product and running them out of the country.

As has often been said, this is the only legal product on the market that if used as directed by the manufacturers kills half its long-term customers, robbing them, on average, of 15 years of life each.

It's estimated smoking is the world's second-biggest avoidable killer after high blood pressure, claiming six million lives a year. The death toll in New Zealand is around 5000 annually. Yet civilised nations continue to treat the trade as normal and acceptable - and subject to arcane trade laws.

Mrs Turia says that more than 80 per cent of smokers wish they had never started, and that around 70 per cent have tried to quit. That being so, surely a compassionate community would leap to their rescue and ban the noxious, addictive weed that has them in its thrall.

But, instead, with the aid of the Smoke Free Environments Act, we play the callous Victorian schoolmarm. We shame the addicts, forcing them out of pubs and workplaces and into the streets to loiter behind bus shelters and work driveways, for a drag. We single out the poor and the ethnic minorities - often the same people - to punish in particular by ratcheting up the taxes on cigarettes by 10 per cent a year.

Even the hard-hearted boffins at the Treasury worry about the disproportionate impact this regressive impost has on poor families. A Treasury report on the impact of proposed new tobacco taxes in April 2012 notes that smoking is highest among lower socio-economic groups and also that "the powerfully addictive nature of nicotine means the extent of smokers' 'free choice' to smoke is debatable ..."

It says "for any given increase, the majority of current smokers in any income group will not quit". Therefore, consideration has to be given to "the negative financial impact that excise increases are likely to have on the majority of low-income households with smokers". In other words, sacrifices will be made in other areas of the household budget to cover the extra cost of the addiction.

The Government's "aspirational" target of the country becoming "smokefree" by 2025 is, according to Ministry of Health modelling, not going to be achieved by the present carrot and stick methods. This week, public health specialist Dr Murray Laugesen revealed a survey that indicated 75 per cent of our 650,000 smokers would give up if a pack of 20 cigarettes went up from the present $15 to $40. Even if this were to occur, that would still leave another 165,000 addicts struggling on.

Central to the publicly funded anti-smoking campaign has been the mission to counter the cigarette advertising myth that smoking is "cool". This has succeeded. There's general acceptance of the appalling cost to victims and the public health budget this industry is responsible for. It's impossible to imagine anyone leaping to its defence if it was declared a health hazard and made illegal. So let's go for it.

Better that than the present policy of trying to shame and tax users out of their addiction. We did it in the prisons back in July 2011 and the sky didn't fall in, or the prisons burn. Just the opposite. Fires in cells fell in numbers. As for prisoners - the vast majority smokers - they became healthier, and the jails safer places to live and work.

Unfortunately, my bet is the cigarette companies will survive. Like cockroaches after nuclear armageddon, they'll still be lurking about trying to extract more cash out of their old victims - but disguised in nurses' outfits. That's if what's going on in Britain is any guide.

New Scientist magazine reports that British American Tobacco has bought CN Creative which manufactures e-cigarettes, a mechanical cigarette that dispenses nicotine in a puff of vapour, rather than the deadly smoke of burning tar.

CN Creative has applied to the British Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to have the device Nicadex approved as a medicine for people trying to get off nicotine. Talk about the ugly face of capitalism. First create your addict, then corner the market on the "cure".

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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