Monday, November 25, 2013

Richard Prebble: Politically Incorrect thinking

Our government has adopted the lofty goal of making New Zealand smoke free by 2025.  There has been some discussion on whether tobacco prohibition is practical but none on what will be the unintended consequences.  A packet of twenty cigarettes now cost $17 and the price is set to rise by 10 percent a year. The assumption is that the price will cause all smokers to quit.  While the number of smokers has been falling for forty years our experience with hard drugs shows that price is no barrier for an addict. 

The reported rise in amount of duty free cigarettes entering the country indicates that the price has caused an increase in private “importing”.  Down my road a farmer is, legally selling tobacco plants. Soon criminals will organize the private importing and growing.  We are creating the conditions to grow organized crime.

No one has asked whether the price of cigarettes is the reason for a rise in child poverty. The Health Promotion Agency, the Crown entity that promotes tobacco control, knows the tobacco tax is taking food off the table because on its website it has an illustration of the amount of food a packet of loose tobacco can buy – a bag of potatoes, a packet of peas, tomatoes and vegetables, some chicken legs, two loaves of bread and a large bottle of milk.

The Health Department first advocated an increase in the price of tobacco to discourage smoking in the Lange Government.  I asked in cabinet “Where is the cost/benefit analysis?”  There was not one.  If there was a cost/benefit you can be sure the anti- smoking advocates would have produced it.    

Giving up smoking is the best thing you can do for your individual health up.  There are benefits to your family.  The dangers of passive smoking are hyped because there is little evidence that you giving up smoking is of significant benefit to others. Car fumes kill more New Zealanders a year than passive smoking.

It is politically incorrect to point this out but we non-smokers benefit from smokers. Their average life expectancy is just 65 so they are helping the affordability of super.  It is a myth that smokers are a burden on the Health System.  The grim health facts are whether you smoke or not you are going to die and for most of us half our life time health costs occur in the last six months of our life. 

The difference in health cost is what we die of and how long we live. Lung cancer does not cost the health system a great deal because there is no cure.  Hospitals now regularly refuse treatments to smokers.  The people who are going to be a real burden to the health system are non-smokers like us who are going to live long enough to come down with really expensive conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Government is addicted to the billion dollars of taxes smokers pay each year. The government has been spending just $40 million year on measures for smokers so the tobacco tax is a straight transfer of wealth from the poorest citizens to the rest of us.

Maori are the country’s principle smokers.  The income transfer by the tobacco tax from Maori to Non-Maori is significantly greater than the cost of Treaty settlements.  If a political party were to advocate a tax that was mainly paid by Maori and spent mainly to benefit non-Maori there would be claims to the Waitangi Tribunal and marches on parliament.  It is ironical that Maori MPs have led the charge for the tobacco tax.

In Mr. Cunliffe’s Labour Party Conference speech he correctly stated there are some households who struggle to put food on the table.  He then said that this is because the rich and corporations are not paying their share of taxes.  Mr. Cunliffe is wrong in his claims about income tax but he was more right than he realized. No corporation and very few rich people pay the tobacco tax.

The full reasons for poverty are complex.  We have issues of inter-generational benefit lead households and successive generations failing at school.  But the reason some households do not have enough money to put food on the table for their children is the tax on tobacco.  If “two New Zealand’s” is the number one issue as Mr. Cunliffe claims then Labour and the Greens should be campaigning to reduce the tobacco tax.

But for the tobacco tax there has never been a better time to be poor.  Benefits are inflation proof.  Family Support is seeing hundreds of millions of dollars being transferred to the working poor.

In the 1970s in my electorate it was not uncommon to have as many as 12 children and adults living in a house.  Social Welfare would not lend beneficiaries money for bonds, furniture and sometimes even cars as the Department does today.  Yet I do not recall going to a house where the children were hungry. 

Today I know of households where the children sometimes have nothing to eat.  In every one of those household all the adults are paying the tobacco tax.

I am not sympathetic to the adults who put their addiction first. I am sympathetic to the plight of hungry children.   Those adults know if they send hungry children to school with no lunch the school will ring Welfare so the children are kept home from school.  The tobacco tax not only makes children hungry it deprives them of education.

Most smokers do put their children first but their children are poorer than the children of non- smokers.  Poverty is bad for your health.  The tobacco tax is increasing child poverty and that poverty is affecting those children’s health.

When child poverty was lower in the fifties a packet of cigarettes was just 45 cents.  In the seventies it was less than $2.  A 30g packet of loose tobacco, the smoke of choice of our poorest citizens, now costs $32-50.

The real gap that is growing is not between rich and poor but between smokers and non-smokers.  Children do not choose to have parents who smoke.

Every smoker I know is fully aware of the health risks. 

White, middle class, males gave up smoking over thirty years ago long before any government campaign.  When I was first elected to parliament I wondered what the tall copper cylinders around the debating chamber were for.  They seemed an odd shape to be ash trays. They were spittoons for chewing tobacco.  The country gave up chewing tobacco without any government intervention.  One day smoking will be as rare as tobacco chewing.

There is a technical answer to smoking.  Electronic cigarettes put out a harmless water vapor.  The electronic cigarette that truly meets the smoker’s addiction has nicotine.  (While nicotine is not good for you it is the other things in tobacco that give you cancer).  The Health Department is opposed to electric cigarettes containing nicotine. 

If you have the money you can import electronic cigarettes with nicotine from America.  The poor are forced by the Health Department to get their nicotine fix in the most dangerous way from tobacco. If we liberalized the restrictions on electronic cigarettes most of the five thousand deaths attributed to tobacco smoking each year could be prevented.  Of course those who advise against liberalisation are not influenced by the fact their jobs would go and the government would lose a billion dollars a year in tax.

Here is another thought for Mr. Cunliffe.  He is looking for 800,000 people who did not vote – this happens to be approximately the number of smokers.  In the households I know where the children occasionally go hungry none of the adults vote.  If you were a smoker why would you vote for the people who tax you so hard that you struggle to feed your children?


Anonymous said...

But for the tobacco tax there has never been a better time to be poor. Benefits are inflation proof. Family Support is seeing hundreds of millions of dollars being transferred to the working poor

Which is why we absolutely still need ACT - or need Colin Craig.

Because in spite of what he says - this current government is the most-left-wing ever in NZ's history. Yep - Key's government is further to the left than Hellen Klark.

Unknown said...

Still sad to think our government probably makes more profit from the sale of addictive drugs than any criminal organization in the country. Well said Richard. Irony and hypocrisy are two words our politicians do not seem to understand.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

"No one has asked whether the price of cigarettes is the reason for a rise in child poverty."

I have:

Anonymous said...

Well said Richard. I too have been vocal about how this is going to affect the children. I am now seeing more smokers around where I live then ever and wonder how much of it is the "stress relief" a cigarette gives smokers. Things are not easy out there!