Editorial: Flaw in smoke-free scheme

Last updated 05:00 06/01/2014

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OPINION: A further financial disincentive has been provided for smokers whose New Year resolution is to quit. An increase in tobacco tax on January 1 lifted the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes to $17.20.

This was the latest in a series of annual tax increases that have raised the tax component of cigarette packs by 40 per cent in the past three years.

Quitline accordingly was braced to cope with an influx of smokers seeking help. In January last year it counselled about 7000 people who intended quitting, either because of New Year resolutions or the tax increase. But some people will simply cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoke and young people continue to take up the smoking habit regardless of the tax deterrent. Other measures obviously are necessary.

Counties Manukau Health introduced last year a pilot scheme to help wean pregnant women off tobacco, part of a wider Ministry of Health initiative to reduce smoking among pregnant mothers because tobacco use can harm an unborn baby. Eligible women can receive incentives in the form of vouchers for groceries, baby products, phone credit, cinema tickets or petrol (but not tobacco, booze or cash) up to $300. These are given at intervals over a 12 week period, so long as the mother is smoke-free during that time.

We may question what cinema tickets do to help a baby's welfare, but sound public-health arguments can be made in favour of this initiative, outweighing the complaints of critics who insist that a good mother should need no publicly provided financial incentives to protect the health of their babies.

The damage caused by smoking in pregnancy has huge costs for the health system ($3000 a day for a premature baby) which continue beyond birth.

The eligibility criteria, on the other hand, raise profound concerns. The vouchers are being offered only to Maori and Pacific women. But if the scheme is effective in helping them and their babies, why is it not available for mothers of other races?

The Waikato District Health Board has its own schemes to help smokers quit but doubtless will be watching the Counties Manukau scheme and - depending on its success - will be tempted to adopt something similar. Fine. But race should have no part in the eligibility criteria.

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- Waikato Times

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