Paul Thomas: Costly cigarettes punish the wrong smokers

Yes, progress has been made, but there are still a few miles to go before we can rest, having achieved the goal of a smoke-free Aotearoa. Photo / Chris Skelton
Yes, progress has been made, but there are still a few miles to go before we can rest, having achieved the goal of a smoke-free Aotearoa. Photo / Chris Skelton

Smoking is the filthy-rich, tax dodging, environment-trashing capitalist pig of vices: the one you can vilify to your heart's content without the slightest risk of offending the politically correct. Rest assured they hate smoking as much as you do.

What's not to hate? Who hasn't brushed past a chain smoker in a confined space and been assailed by the foul force-field that surrounds them? Who isn't aware of smoking's terrible toll on the community and the tobacco industry's calculated, deceitful stonewalling over many decades?

But we've come a long way. Checking into a near-full hotel, one no longer has to dread the "take it or leave it" offer of a smoker's room with the ambience of a burnt-out rat's nest. With each passing year, those who fail to get the message are forced further out into the cold.

Yes, progress has been made, but there are still a few miles to go before we can rest, having achieved the goal of a smoke-free Aotearoa.

To that end, the price of a packet of cigarettes will increase by 10 per cent a year for the next four years, taking it up to around $30. We can't stop these wretches smoking - actually we could try; other, less harmful recreational drugs are illegal, but that's another issue - but we can make their filthy habit exorbitantly expensive. Only one significant political figure has spoken out against the price increases: New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. And just as every dog has its day, this is a rare instance when Peters has right on his side.

It's a discriminatory, anti-progressive tax in that it falls far harder on the poor than the well-off. If its backers were honest, they'd admit the aim of the exercise is to stop poor people smoking since rich smokers clearly won't kick the habit just because it's going to cost them a few extra bucks.

The fact that the increases will raise $425 million in revenue is being touted as a happy byproduct. Not only are politicians and bureaucrats congratulating themselves on screwing revenue out of those who can least afford it, they're having a cynical each-way bet: if it actually doesn't work, we'll get a nice little windfall. In other words, the state is now in the business of taxing addiction.

Over the past few decades, as a Herald editorial pointed out this week, the anti-smoking campaign has largely succeeded with the number of people who now smoke on a daily basis down to 15 per cent of the population over the age of 15.

You might think that was an argument for directing the same level of energy and resources at and imposing similar financial disincentives on other substances that are damaging to the nation's health and well-being: sugary and fatty foods causing the obesity epidemic and alcohol.

I suspect the numbers tell the story: cranking up the price of grog and junk food would affect a lot more people and therefore carry a higher political risk than hammering the dwindling, friendless band of diehard smokers.

Among those adversely affected by an increase in the price of alcohol would be our winemakers, who are routinely portrayed as talented and dedicated artisans in whose output we should take pride. Not so long ago, a leading light in the Maori Party described those who work in the tobacco industry as "terrorists".

But if the issue is the strain imposed on our health and legal systems, it could be pointed out that tobacco isn't a root cause of road accidents, domestic violence or street viciousness of the king hit variety.

I feel particularly sorry for elderly people living in straitened circumstances who took up smoking when it was socially acceptable and the health risks far less evident and for whom it provides some solace in otherwise bleak lives. Is it equitable or humane to offer them the choice of giving up one of the few enjoyable pastimes available to them or taking a cut in their already low standard of living?

But such questions don't prey on the minds of social engineers who believe perfection, in the form of a 100 per cent smoke-free society, is attainable and desirable. It may cause a little short-term suffering - in which they, of course, won't share - for the recalcitrant minority but then you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

- NZ Herald

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