Lee Suckling 's Opinion

Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Lee Suckling: Will plain packs really stop smokers?

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"Is it really so wrong to let them choose whether it's the camel, the lucky target, or the horsey Marlboro crest that'll eventually kill them?"
Photo / Thinkstock
"Is it really so wrong to let them choose whether it's the camel, the lucky target, or the horsey Marlboro crest that'll eventually kill them?" Photo / Thinkstock

Many non-smokers will know the moment. You're walking amidst a crowd, sardine-style, down the main street on a busy morning. Somebody in front of you lights up, and the smell of tobacco smoke drifts downwind - right onto your skin, into your hair and clothes, and up your nose.

You dart left; you dart right. You can't escape the smoker, who is huffing and puffing like an anxious dragon, trying to get back to the Lonely Mountain. "Smoking is disgusting," you think to yourself. That moment makes the morning trudge to work all the more unappealing.

Back in the news is the proposed introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes - will we, or won't we? A public hearing took place last week on the issue, and yet again we saw tobacco lobbyists roll out their key argument: plain packaging removes all intellectual property and branding from their products - which, effectively, hinders the consumer's right to choose from a range of competitors.

I'm not going to hate on smokers. Smoke all you want to. It makes little difference to me, as long as it's not onto my face. Smoking while amongst a crowd is seriously poor form - your actions directly affect those around you, without their consent. But it's challenging to see how Joe from HR taking a smoko in the car park affects anyone else but Joe from HR.

Yes, the healthcare system gets clogged up with those suffering from smoking-related illnesses. Is it a self-imposed strain on taxpayer resources? Absolutely. However there are user-pays excise taxes designed to directly support this requirement. The same can't be said for those who play contact sports and their effect on public health resources.
I begin to wonder why don't we place the same stigma on consumption of alcohol. It's an addictive product, and it causes serious diseases and illnesses. Yet alcohol drinkers don't receive the same bad rap as smokers.

The likely argument? Smoking affects the health of everybody around the smoker, while alcohol only affects the health of each individual drinker. A complete falsity, mind you. Alcohol likely does more harm to those around the drinker (and society at large) than smoking - via violence, drink driving, and so on. It can also break up homes and relationships, cause job losses, and spiral someone to lose control of their entire life.
Smoking doesn't do any of those things. Alcohol abuse defines recurring consumption, despite negative and severe consequences. Never is the term "tobacco abuse" touted. It leads us to ponder why all major political parties are keen on ridding society of cigarettes, yet we'd never consider banning booze.

The same goes for the other consumables that considerably strain New Zealand's healthcare system. Junk food - from chocolate to KFC - falls in here. As does Coke, Red Bull, and those trashy 500ml cans that look like Black Sabbath souvenirs.

Such sugar-laden foodstuffs, when consumed rarely - like the occasional drink or smoke - result in little harm to the individual and have no effect on public healthcare. But when consumed in excess, the public system has obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses to deal with.

Before you say "but tobacco and alcohol are addictive", look at the various and plentiful studies worldwide that show how addictive sugar is. A 2013 American study showed rats have the same brain response to Oreo cookies as to cocaine and morphine. Sure, humans are different to rats, but based the things we eat when we're alone, it certainly gives explanation as to why it's impossible to eat just the one biscuit.

While many MPs reject it, tobacco lobbyists have a fair point on the intellectual property issue. How would we deal with supermarket wine aisles lined not with colourful bottles, but white labels and plain text? We'd be unable to choose one Sav from the next. Likewise, we'd be distraught if the confectionary section wasn't populated with purples and golds; instead awash with 50 shades of grey.

Is the tobacco plain packaging bill amendment worthwhile? Honestly, I'm on the fence. I'd love to never again be submitted to a puff of smoke in my face, but I'm in agreement with tobacco companies in believing that plain packaging won't reduce tobacco consumption. After all, smokers gonna smoke.

Moreover, it's difficult to see how plain packaging will prevent young people from taking up smoking (another campaign goal for plain packaging advocates). I'm not sure what kind of school you went to, but there was certainly no brand bias behind the bike sheds at mine.

Read more: Kids drawn to brightly coloured cigarette packs

Dairies, supermarkets and service stations are already forbidden from putting cigarettes on display, and tobacco can't be advertised in New Zealand. The social shame of smoking is crippling, and ever-increasingly are smokers forced to ostracise themselves from the mainstream eye.

Is it really so wrong to let them choose whether it's the camel, the lucky target, or the horsey Marlboro crest that'll eventually kill them?

Lee Suckling

Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Writer Lee Suckling pens his opinionated thoughts every Wednesday, covering issues surrounding Generation Y, New Zealand's gay community, and the ethical dilemmas presented every day to those living in a tech-centric modern world. Outside of the New Zealand Herald, Lee writes for a range of magazines and newspapers across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Read more by Lee Suckling

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