Peter Lyons: Seeing clearly through the smoke

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Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Finally a bit of good news for one of New Zealand's most beleaguered minorities. A Treasury report has shown that smokers provide a net positive contribution to the New Zealand economy.

Mind you, Treasury has also predicted four of the last zero economic recoveries.

The report points out that the taxes paid by smokers exceed the health costs attributed to smoking. It also states that the early demise of many smokers reduces the costs of aged care and government pensions.

Apparently it is far more economically efficient to succumb to lung cancer and massive coronaries in middle age than to clog up the Alzheimer's units in your dotage. As a hard-working taxpayer it makes me want to hug the nearest tobacco bandit.

I have always had a soft spot for smokers. They are on the front line of the battle between puritanical wowsers and "live for the moment" hedonists. My concern is that once the smokers have been wiped out they'll come after us boozers.

I used to enjoy sitting in the smoking section of planes because smokers tend to be drinkers so when I raised my hand for a refill it was one in a sea of raised hands. The air hostesses would provide a top-up with an indulgent smile. I felt comfortable in the company of fellow hedonists.

Now the smoking fraternity has been reduced to small clusters huddled miserably outside public buildings in all sorts of weather trying to sneak a nicotine fix. Littler wonder their health statistics are dire compared to the rest of us.

When I teach my students about the economic impact of cigarette consumption the bright ones quickly cotton on to the fact that taxing smokers is a godsend for politicians. Not only does it raise significant revenue for the Government but it also allows politicians to appear virtuous in their desire to help their fellow citizens quit their habit.

The Treasury report implies that revenue raising rather than the altruism of politicians is the primary motive for raising tobacco taxes. Treasury stopped short of advocating subsidies for tobacco companies. Maybe that could be a use for the funds saved by increasing class sizes.

There seems to be a singularly blunt approach towards combating smoking that overlooks the psychology at play in the decision of many whether to puff or not. The attitude is that by bludgeoning smokers with higher prices this should reduce their consumption. No doubt it will, but at a very high cost to many people least able to afford it. Smoking rates tend to be highest among lower socio-economic groups.

I was recently at a lively 50th birthday. After dinner we discovered one of our party was missing. We found him huddled on the porch in the rain, furtively puffing on a fag. He had trudged through the bleak wintry conditions to the nearest petrol station to buy a packet.

All the nicotine patches, the addiction counselling, the praise of well-meaning friends had been undone by a few whiskies triggering the desire for a quick smoke.

But now he was stuck with a packet of 20 evil white coffin bolts. If politicians were truly serious about reducing smoking they would understand that for many quitters what undoes their noble intention is situations such as this. Recidivism for smokers is extremely dependent on trigger points.

A suggestion might be to sell cigarettes individually and really ramp up the price. That way the politicians get their tax and the smokers can indulge on the odd occasion when temptation trumps intent. Most importantly, they don't end up with an entire packet that invites further consumption. The first fag is always the best.

I like smokers because many were the rebels at school.

It was a one-fingered salute to authority.

Sadly what started as an act of youthful rebellion sometimes blossomed into a full-blown addiction. Only the most thick-skinned puffer would fail to recognise that their habit is no longer appreciated by the majority.

The problem is that taxing the bejesus out of them often makes a poor addict poorer.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom, Auckland.

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