Monday, July 13

Clearing away the smoke

For most of the past week, newspapers have been running comment by experts praising a proposal that the Australian Government increase its tobacco excise to push the price of a packet of 30 cigarettes up to $20. I believe the current price is about $13.50.

With an excise increase from 25 cents to 43c, that would lift the price per single cigarette from about 45c to 67c. Here's how the Sydney Sun-Herald highlighted the news a week ago:

The government's Preventative Health Task Force claimed the price jump, along with other anti-smoking measures including generic packaging and gruesome warnings covering 95 per cent of the packet, would help one million more Australians kick the habit.

I'd love to see tobacco smoking disappear from the face of the earth. But we should be wary. Too often, when we nobly go forth to do good, we harm the people we try to help.

When activists boycott coffee or cocoa picked by child labour, they get a warm inner glow and some families in the third world slip from bare subsistence to slow starvation.

Many call it the Law of Unintended Consequences, although it's no more scientific than Murphy's Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”). However, perverse results are always possible if we don't think things through.

Let's face it. Heavy smoking today is largely an addiction of the poor and the badly educated – the underclass of our society. If we make cigarettes much more expensive, many will still need to feed their addiction. To pay the higher price, they will spend less on food, housing and clothing for themselves and their families.

This newspaper article, by two prominent anti-smoking campaigners, disagrees with my view, but I remain doubtful. The article begins:

Tobacco tax is suddenly big news, with speculation about the Government's response to a recommended increase in excise giving rise to several myths and misconceptions. So it is timely to look at how the myths stack up against the evidence.

First, there is the view that increased tobacco excise punishes those on low incomes. The reality is that tobacco tax increases are particularly effective in prompting people in lower socio-economic
groups to quit smoking.

This is very important, because disadvantaged groups bear a disproportionately heavy tobacco death and disease burden. And a modest tobacco tax increase would generate more than enough funding to provide tailored assistance programs for people on lower incomes struggling to quit.

The article – by Professor Ian Olver, chief executive of the Cancer Council of Australia, and Maurice Swanson, the National Heart Foundation's tobacco control spokesman – concedes that poor people suffer the most tobacco-related death and illness.

It also claims recent Quit Victoria research shows 60 per cent of smokers support a tobacco tax increase. To that, I can only say I'm a journalist and it's part of my trade to be sceptical. I'd like to see details of that research.

I'd also like to see the research supporting the claim in the article's second paragraph.

And I'm sceptical of the claim that higher excise would generate more than enough funding to provide tailored assistance for people on lower incomes struggling to quit. With the massive revenue already generated by tobacco excise, why don't we have effective “tailored assistance” today?

(That's not to say we should not be improving ways to provide help – obviously, we should keep seeking them with well-funded research at the highest level.)

But in the past week's debate, nobody seems to have touched on two important issues. The first is simple – couldn't the Australian Government make nicotine lozenges, chewing gum and patches less expensive?

For smokers heavily addicted to nicotine, they may be the only way to give up cigarettes and their cancer-causing chemicals. Making them cheaper must help more people quit.

Looking at the nicotine products in a local pharmacy, one has the impression of an oligopoly – a market supplied by only a few competitors, making price competition less likely.

Perhaps the government could ask the Productivity Commission to examine the production, marketing and pricing of nicotine replacement products. If the commission finds they could be cheaper – with generic products, perhaps – it could lean on the present makers to cut prices.

If it finds the prices are in line with production costs, the government itself could pay a subsidy to lower retail cost.

The second important argument needs careful phrasing (I am well aware of the defamation laws), but perhaps we could strive to change public attitudes so that it becomes socially unacceptable to be a director, executive, marketing or public relations worker in the tobacco industry.

Cigarette production and marketing may be legal, but surely tobacco executives know their commercial efforts result in the deaths of many of their fellow citizens.

It might be a bit extreme to spit on their BMWs as they drive past, but perhaps we could raise our concerns when we sit beside them at the yacht club or on the school council – just quietly letting them know we feel their moral position could stand re-examination.

Some of these issues came under the spotlight in 2003, when the University of Sydney's Senate refused to endorse the appointment of former New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner – then chairman of British American Tobacco (Australia) – to head the advisory council of the university's Graduate School of Government.

In a post on March 22 last year, this blog praised Greiner as a Liberal Party moderate, a good Premier and an astute businessman. But that post did go on to say of his being forced out of the premiership:

At that time one could feel sympathy, but with many of us it went up in smoke when he became chairman of a major Australian company which kills people as part of the ordinary course of its business – British American Tobacco.

This is not to reflect on Nick Greiner's position at the time. Indeed, the issues are not clear-cut, as shown in this analysis by St James Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff at the time of the Sydney University setback.

However, I do believe that over time it will become socially unacceptable to run a tobacco company. Let's make that time come sooner.

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