Next time you splutter your way through a cloud of second-hand smoke, consider the plight of the poor sod who exhaled it.
The average smoker earns less, has poorer mental health, and will live a shorter life than the rest of us. They face social stigma, restricted employment opportunities, and all the inconveniences and anxieties that come with servicing an addiction. And holy smokes, do they pay for it. Annual tax hikes have driven even the cheapest cigarettes to $30 a pack, 80 per cent of which goes straight to the tax man. All up smokers pitch in around $2 billion a year in excise and GST to fund schools, roads, puppy dogs for the blind, Parliamentary playgrounds and so on – far more than what they cost the health system. Instead of giving them dirty looks, we ought to give them medals for services to the taxpayer.
The darker side of the tax is that it makes already poor families even poorer. When taxes are taken out of a low-earning household's budget, that means less for the kids' school lunches, shoes and extra-curriculars. It's enough to make a kid want a smoke.
Fortunately, the government now appears to recognise tobacco taxes have gone far enough. This year was the first in a decade that didn't see tobacco tax hiked beyond the rate of inflation.
What changed? Maybe it was the Tax Working Group's warning against higher taxes on the poor. Or the spate of often-violent dairy robberies, driven by the sky-high street value of stolen durries. Perhaps most significant is the growing consensus within public health circles that, having whittled down the smoking rate to 13 per cent, we're now dealing with the most serious addicts for whom price is no object.
However, the government is stuck with the optimistic goal of Smokefree 2025, set a decade ago by politicians who probably knew they wouldn't still be in office come crunch time. Officially, achieving Smokefree 2025 means getting the smoking rate below five per cent.
It's with that goal in mind that the government has unveiled new proposals to replace excise tax hikes. It turns out a rigid adherence to a blunt 10-year-old goal is not a formula for sensible policy.
The most striking suggestion – it would be a world-first – is to force tobacco companies to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes.
The government ought to ask why other countries haven't attempted this. First thing first: nicotine may be addictive, but it's not what kills people. That would be the tar and other by-products of combustion. Reduced-nicotine cigarettes would be just as harmful as the full-strength stuff, but a smoker would have to huff down more sticks to achieve the same buzz.
That means more tar and more tax. Even if that spurs a few smokers at the margin to quit, is it really a victory for public health if the remaining smokers intensify their smoking habit and its associated health risks?
Then there's the proposal to restrict where cigarettes are sold. It's hard to see how this would deter a smoker from buying darts if they've already tolerated a decade of tax hikes. It would, of course, be a boon for the supermarkets or pharmacies that secure local monopolies on tobacco sales, while small dairies on the edge of profitability go out of business without visits from smokers who make additional purchases.
Next is a proposal to ban anyone born after a certain date from ever buying smokes, meaning eventually even 40- or 50 year-old smokers will be ID'd each time they buy a pack. The idea is to create a 'smokefree generation,' but we already have one; 15- to 17-year-olds have a smoking rate of just three per cent and sinking, well below the Smokefree 2025 threshold. For perspective, Māori women have a smoking rate of 32 per cent.
Perhaps the downright meanest proposal is to ban filters on cigarettes. While filtered cigarettes certainly aren't safe, they're better than the alternative. At best, banning filters will just make smokers miserable; at worst, it'll kill them. Welcome to Smokefree Aotearoa!
There's an overarching failing that applies to all of these proposals: they'll only affect legal cigarettes. Already, thanks to sky-high taxes on legal tobacco, one in 10 cigarettes smoked in New Zealand are illicit, either home-grown or illegally smuggled from Asia in suitcases and shipping containers. Imagine how this black market will thrive once it's the only source of filtered, full-strength tobacco.
In fact, the Ministry of Health has even advised that the proposals will increase illicit trade, necessitating (presumably costly) strengthened measures to crack down on the black market.
So should we just give up on the smokefree dream? Not at all, even if the 2025 deadline is unrealistic. Smokers are increasingly working out for themselves that they can transition off the death sticks and on to vaping, which is estimated to be 95 per cent safer.
We should celebrate that. All the government needs to do is ease off its plans to regulate the hell out of vaping products. Meanwhile, the rest of us can do our part by casting a little less judgment at the guy blowing blueberry clouds at smoko.