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Tobacco tax: Butting out

Winston Peters is wrong on smoking, but for the right reasons.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is among those who believe the authorities are now being unfairly harsh on smokers. He is wrong – but for the right reasons.

Where politics and public health intersect, it certainly pays to beware of the risk of unintended consequences, and hitting smokers’ pockets has quite a few. Although progressive tax hikes have proven highly effective in getting people to stop, there is a perverse downside. The steepening price has made tobacco attractive currency for criminals; dairies are now commonly robbed for durries rather than cash or alcohol. It’s also likely that some already poor families’ belts will be further tightened as addicted parents economise on basics to afford their habit.

As Peters and others say, the Budget’s five-year planned escalation of tobacco tax will further incentivise theft and result in already needy children doing without more. Most passionately, critics warn the impost is falling disproportionately on low-income Maori women, as they are over-represented in the smoking category.

There is also evidence that for the persistent tail of people who still smoke despite extensive education programmes, advertising and display bans, gory pictures on the packaging, social ostracism and general nagging, the price mechanism is now of little use. With a pack of 20 costing more than $20, hard-core faggers have shown that price is no deterrent, and many will doubtless find ways to pay $30 for a pack in five years’ time.

Nor will plain packaging – the next front of our tobacco war – prove much of a deterrent for the remaining 15% of New Zealanders who smoke.

All these downsides are of great concern. But none is sufficient argument for easing up on the price or restriction of smoking. We have to think not just about the hard core of tobacco users, but about potential smokers, in particular young people. To them, the lack of brand glamour and the sharpening price will continue to be deterrents, even while the rusted-on smokers puff on.

As for the arguments about financial hardship for Maori women, surely our overriding concern must be for the health burden smoking heaps upon them. Compared with lung cancer, emphysema and early death, the financial burden of an extra $10 a pack is almost a distasteful equivalence for critics to make.

This tax policy is not being implemented in a heartless vacuum. Smokers have never had more free and easily accessible support for the task of quitting. No one would minimise the difficulty of the task, but the health system has for years now provided wrap-around counselling and effective free and subsidised chemical aids for smoking cessation.

It’s clear Peters’ irritation is stoked by some of the more extreme new measures anti-tobacco warriors now propose, notably that of putting an R18 restriction on movies and TV programmes in which people smoke. This is fetishistic, verging on an attempt to rewrite cultural history. Children and young teens see and read depictions of sexism, racism and all manner of outmoded social ills as a valuable part of their education. Learning to understand stories in a social and historical context will not be enhanced by shielding them from the day-to-day habits of societies past. This would be on a par with age-restricting Hairy Maclary because it is now considered dangerous to let packs of dogs roam free.

There is also an unattractive fanaticism about councils’ and institutions’ moves to ban not only smoking, but e-cigarettes, from their realms. The Ministry of Health’s refusal to consider making the sale of e-cigarettes here legal borders on indefensible. On the evidence so far, banning “vaping” actually punishes those most likely to be well on track to giving up smoking altogether.

A study at the University of Otago – which, ironically, has banished vaping – has found people are twice as likely to give up smoking if they use e-cigarettes to transition off them than those who use other methods. A recent British study found there is no evidence that young people who experiment with vaping make it a permanent habit, or graduate to smoking as the ministry has alleged. A world authority on smoking cessation, New Zealander Dr Murray Laugesen, supports e-cigarettes as a prime and remarkably low-risk weapon against the killer habit. It’s time the ministry listened.

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