FOR this column I asked all the five candidates standing for the Whanganui electorate in this weekend's election two simple questions.

The first question was: "Have you ever been a lunch monitor at school?"

Neither Alan Davidson (Act) nor Reg Skipworth (NZ First) had been, but Nicola Patrick (Greens) had been elected house captain at Girls' College.

Harete Hipango (National) couldn't recall whether she had been a lunch monitor but the question brought back fond memories of Friday lunch at Queen's Park School and orders of fish 'n' chips and hotdogs, individually wrapped in newspaper.

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Steph Lewis (Labour) had been dux at City College and recalled being a "peer mediator" which, I guess, is a contemporary name for a lunch monitor.

The other question I asked them was: "What right does the state have to attempt to alter the behaviour of an individual that is at no cost to the state?"

Around half of the price of a packet of cigarettes is "behavioural economics" designed to deter people from smoking; the other half covers the cost of manufacture and retail. All health costs to the state - plus GST.

While my first question was frivolous my second question went straight to heart of the relationship between the state and the individual.

Alan said: "In an ideal world we can smoke if we wish, and the state cannot stop us. Act would limit the tax to cover health costs caused by smoking but would also fund smoking cessation programmes."

He pointed out that the tax on cigarettes was a big cause of poverty among beneficiaries and that the tax may not necessarily stop people smoking, but he thought it did reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked.

"Stupid teenagers are still starting to smoke," he said.

Because taxpayers ultimately pay for the beneficiaries' incomes, they are, in effect, helping pay their tobacco taxes.

Reg told me: "It is wrong for the state to have the price inflated - it should not be involved except to encourage people to make healthy choices."

Nicola said government's efforts to reduce the harm of smoking was a good thing. In her view, the harm of alcohol needs more attention, given the links to domestic violence, and possession of "personal" cannabis should be legalised.

Nicola disputed that the true costs of smoking were covered by tobacco taxation.

The Taxpayers Union estimates that around one-half of the price of a packet of cigarettes is a tax designed ostensibly to discourage smoking - particularly by Maori women.

After the National/Maori Party legislated 20 per cent annual tax increases, the government's tobacco tax take now exceeds $1 billion per year. Over the time John Key was prime minister, Maori smokers paid more in tobacco taxes than all the Treaty of Waitangi settlements paid to Maori to date.

Harete acknowledged that the high prices seemed not to deter some people from smoking, and referred to statistics showing that smoking rates among young women were on the rise.

Harete then applied her legal mind to my question. "The State sets measures, standards and guidelines in the absence of self-imposed controls where certain deemed activities/omissions and their cause/effects/impacts are detrimental either to self, others or both," she said.

Like Nicola, Harete disputed that the cost to the state from smoking could be measured just in dollar terms.

Steph (also a lawyer) thought the government had an obligation to govern in the interests of New Zealanders, not just to use its influence to reduce its own costs. "For example we ban methamphetamine because of the broader impact on society, not just to save the health system money," she said, coming to the point.

It seemed to me that both lawyers had failed to confront the essence of my second question. The state has no inherent rights - it is a social construct and we, the individuals, give it certain rights.

Every three years we elect representatives to protect our rights, and this year I am predicting another government of lunch monitors.


-When Fred Frederikse is not building, he is a self-directed student of geography and traveller, and in his spare time he is the co-chair of the Whanganui Musicians Club.