Should smoking or alcohol be taxed more?
OPINION: It was a touching moment, well-nigh cathartic. I joined a woman in her 20s in the lift. Being Friday afternoon, she reached for the staple of elevator small-talk. Done for the week then, she murmured? Not yet, I rasped, just going for a smoke.
Oh, she said, with an unmistakenly figurative doff of her trilby, you're one of them.
I could have kissed her, but she was a non-smoker and wearing lip gloss. Still, I'd found another one, a non-smoker acknowledging, even appreciating, the good we do for society by smoking ourselves to a premature death.
Take our tobacco taxes, for a start. Bill English, I am reliably told, needs an additional abacus to keep up with what we plough into the state coffers. And then we die young, saving even more billions in pension costs, old-age accommodation and frailty care.
Demographically, too, we do our bit. Research indicates that by 2026, Wellington will need more retirement homes than schools, as the silver tsunami exceeds youth. If that is happening in a vibrant, cool city, we can expect many sleepy hollows up and down the country to eventually become ghost towns.
New Zealand has an abundance of riches. In flora and fauna, scenery, rugby talent and world-class baristas. What we don't need is an even bigger ageing population.
I won't bore you with the maths or intricacies, but American political author and satirist P J O'Rourke got through many cartons of cigarettes while he painstakingly researched his article on the US government's fallacious arguments when it raised tobacco tax in the name of creating a healthier nation. The costs of pensions and looking after the elderly if everyone lived to 110 would far outstrip the health costs that smokers incurred.
Kiwis are miles apart from the stateside brigade; geographically, of course, but also in outlook and demeanour.
But like the US, New Zealand's become a nation of smoker-haters, because they believe the claptrap that governments feed their flocks – that every time they raise the tax on tobacco, they do it to create a healthier nation.
Governments don't. They do it because smokers have become sitting ducks for more tax. Cash cows who keep the treasury well-oiled because of an addiction. My local dairy owner tells me that of the $14.40 I hand him every few days, he takes about 80c and the manufacturer about $1.60. That leaves $12 per pack of 20s in taxes. Go do the maths.
Now the New Zealand Government intends raising tax so packets cost $20 each. Of which they'll probably take $16 then. But don't immediately join the anti-smoking zealots in believing this is for the greater good, because research on the effects of tax increases makes interesting reading.
Even anti-smoking lobbyists can't agree on how much tax hikes actually reduces the number of smokers. Some say for every 10 per cent price increase, 5 per cent of smokers quit for good. Others concede that a 20 per cent hike cuts down smoking by only 2 per cent. Hardly convincing numbers. But they do agree that tax increases also have counter-productive effects, in that they hit hardest in the lowest-income sector, who then cut down on food and other basic necessities to fund their habits.
Granted, if the price of smokes rockets to $150 tomorrow, I too will stop. But that again begs the question, if the government really wants us entirely smokefree, why not ban cigarettes and tobacco full stop?
Yes, some tobacco-industry people would lose their jobs. And many doctors and hospice staff would have more free time on their hands. But they can all be re-skilled to help build old-age homes by the scores, join the New Zealand Customs Service to intercept the illegal importation of cigarettes for the black market or join the production plants for zimmer frames.
So why are they peddling gradual price increases that most of us will simply suck up?
Because they need the taxes. And because our earlier deaths will slow the ticking of the old-age time bomb. That's why.
It's the same for tax on booze. They fiddle with the drinking age, licensing conditions, minimum prices and opening hours, and lament the binge-drinking culture of many Kiwis, all while desperately dependent on alcohol taxes.
And on that score I have to add this: say all you like about the effects of passive smoking, then compare it to the effects of alcohol. Untold numbers of people are every day murdered, raped, abused, maimed or killed on the road because of intoxicated idiots. Yet nobody veers into unsuspecting pedestrians with a car, rapes or beats a partner after a calming hit of nicotine. At most we set the occasional house on fire.
This is not a defence of smoking. Trawl the internet and it's hard to decide which products nowadays boost health and which will bring on cancer, heart attacks, strokes and other inconveniences. Red wine can reduce cardiovascular disease, screams one headline. But it will cripple you with gout and turn you obese, says another.
I grant the zealots this: I've never seen an article listing the physical benefits of smoking. It's a filthy habit, costly too, and does not warrant any defence, apart from in the name of true liberalism (as in, no harm to others and face up personally to the consequences).
I'm simply tired of governments hoodwinking and double-dipping on the issue. They preach about bodies ending in coffins, but love and need bundles in their coffers. Want a healthier and ageing population? Then flog us properly on the price front. Or ban tobacco altogether. But don't sit there decreeing tax hikes with one hand while counting burgeoning revenue with the other.
If, in a few decades from now, New Zealand's boasting the world's healthiest population, don't say you weren't warned when the PM raises the earliest retirement age to 103 and PAYE tax to 80 per cent.
Eric Janssen described himself as a moderate, considerate smoker. His other vices include sticking to the speed limit, eating healthily and regular exercise.
- The Dominion Post
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