Editorial: Smokers are feeling the heat

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A no smoking sign on the AUT campus. Photo / Janna Dixon
A no smoking sign on the AUT campus. Photo / Janna Dixon

The noose continues to tighten around tobacco smokers. Under a law passed on Thursday, retailers will have to hide tobacco products from view. The Government is also exploring the idea of copying the Australians' plain-packaging legislation - though we may be sure the tobacco companies' expen-sive lawyers will be fighting that one like cornered rats.

Meanwhile, the Auckland District Health Board is exploring the idea of refusing to hire smokers, and Auckland Council bosses will consider banning smoking in central-city streets and at bus stops.

Smokers may complain that they are being victimised, but their arguments about personal liberty founder on a fundamental point of principle: you don't have the right to hurt yourself if you are hurting other people in the process.

Three Act MPs voted against the law requiring products to be kept out of sight, because they supported "rational personal choice". But is it rational to avail yourself of a product which inescapably harms the user when used as directed? Certainly not, when that harm becomes a drain on the public health system and society as a whole.

The tangible economic costs of smoking - in health care and loss of production because of illness or early death - are of the order of $1.7 billion a year, almost twice what is collected in tax. Anyone claiming the right to set fire to that sort of public money needs to come up with an argument more cogent than personal liberty.

To their credit, Maori MPs are driving this. Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia introduced the latest bill and Hone Harawira, when a Maori Party MP, forced a select committee inquiry into the tobacco industry.

Little wonder: Maori die from smoking-related diseases in far greater numbers than Pakeha. But the numbers are grim whatever your ethnicity: one death in five has a smoking link. Turia's mission to have a smoke-free nation by 2025 may be quixotic, but it's a lot better than lying down and dying.

In a related development, the liquor giant Lion Nathan this week announced that it will follow the Australian lead in introducing health warnings on its drinks. But the move has attracted the critricism of Professor Doug Sellman of the National Addiction Centre who suggested the warnings were deliberately bland, and added that even accurate health warnings were unlikely to have an impact without meaningful government action.

Lion Nathan plainly wants to be seen as a good corporate citizen, though the plan could be seen, as it is being seen in Australia, as an attempt at self-regulation to head off official intervention. Small labels won't deal with a big problem.

It's an axiom that our politicians must follow, not lead, public opinion. But our world-leading smokefree legislation, driven by Helen Clark, ignored that. As a result, and in barely a generation, smokers have stopped lighting up where they please, including in bars, restaurants and workplaces where they were vastly outumbered by non-smokers, and are now looking at being banished from the streets.

The same sort of social shift needs to take place in our drinking. Alcohol abuse is costing us between $1.5 billion and $2.4 billion a year, depending on what harms are factored into the equation. We need to begin taking ownership of the drinking culture as the country's problem, rather than bleating about how a few are spoiling it for everyone.

All of us need to repudiate drunken behaviour, just as we abjure hateful racist insult. If being drunk became socially unacceptable - rather than "the boys having fun" - we would have no need of health labels on bottles.

- Herald on Sunday

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