Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Peters gets it right on tobacco price hike

By Paul Thomas

Winston Peters has demanded the Maori Party prove its claim that smoking kills 5000 New Zealanders a year. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Winston Peters has demanded the Maori Party prove its claim that smoking kills 5000 New Zealanders a year. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

It's true that these moves will affect mainly the poor and their families.

As the old saying goes, a stopped clock is right twice a day. (Which is no use to anyone since you can't establish that without consulting an operational timepiece.)

The stopped clock is a metaphor for the fool who every now and again say something worth saying. Which brings us to Winston Peters.

Peters has a history of absurd utterances. In 2005 when he was launching himself upon a bemused world in the guise of our Minister of Foreign Affairs, he accused this newspaper and my fellow columnist Fran O'Sullivan of treason.

Fran supposedly betrayed the country by reporting that, while attending an Apec summit in South Korea, Peters lobbied then US Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice for closer bilateral relations. This is to treason what popping a balloon is to detonating a nuclear bomb.

On the face of it, it's not even criticism.

There was his insistence that journalists are supposed to report what goes on in Parliament and not get involved in satire. This stance is at odds with the English literary, political and journalistic tradition to which we belong and the fundamental democratic principle that politicians don't tell journalists how to do their job.

And there was his claim that his grilling by Parliament's Privileges Committee over the Owen Glenn donation had "echoes of Zimbabwe". He was Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time; Robert Mugabe's political rivals, meanwhile, were being beaten or intimidated into submission, imprisoned or made to disappear.

But this week the stopped clock got it right. He told a select committee hearing on the bill that will push the price of a packet of cigarettes up to $20 over the next few years that the effect will be to "thump the pockets of poor Maori". (Maori are twice as likely to smoke as Pakeha.)

Just in case we didn't get where Peters was coming from, news reports referred to him as a "habitual smoker" when simple "smoker" would have sufficed. We weren't told if those promoting the bill were anti-smoking zealots. I suppose that goes without saying. Let's accept that smoking should be actively discouraged, and that making it more expensive is probably an effective way of doing that. But let's also be honest about what's going on here.

Firstly, let's acknowledge that the object of this exercise is to deter poor people from smoking since jacking up the price will make very little difference to the well off.

Second, let's acknowledge that while making cigarettes more expensive will persuade some people to cut down and others to quit, many "habitual smokers" will carry on regardless. There's testimony from people who are in a position to make the comparison that it's harder to give up tobacco than heroin and some heroin addicts would rather prostitute themselves or turn to crime than kick the habit.

When Australia, where 50 per cent of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders smoke compared to 18 per cent of the general population, rammed up the price of cigarettes in 2010, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation was adamant that it would have little effect on smokers in the indigenous communities.

Third, let's accept that if smokers aren't deterred by the cost, the adverse effect on household income will be felt by their families.

And let's recognise that old age pensioners, who took up smoking when it was socially acceptable, will also suffer. Try telling those for whom cigarettes are the only solace that it's for their own good.

In short, let's not pretend that this approach isn't going to make life a little bit tougher for people whose lives are quite tough enough already.

Typically, Peters couldn't leave it at that. He tried to open up a second front by demanding that the Maori Party prove its claim that smoking kills 5000 New Zealanders a year.

Even the tobacco companies have come to the realisation that turning a Nelsonian blind eye to an armada of evidence doesn't help their cause.

Fortunately for Peters he was emphatically trumped in the crassness stakes by Maori Party vice-president Ken Mair: "There seems to have been a lot of emphasis in regard to the terrorists of the Ureweras. From our point of view the real terrorists in this country are the tobacco companies. These terrorists cause immense death to the scale of 5000 [people a year]."

If terrorism is producing and selling a legal product that people purchase and consume of their own free will but which can be detrimental to their health, then breweries and fast food companies make al-Qaeda look like the Urewera Four.

- NZ Herald

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