Saturday, June 08, 2002

Some musings on tobacco.

As one of libertarian bent, I am naturally inclined to disagree with the anti-smoking brigade. The conventional position is to let people go to hell in their own manner of choosing. The same feeling counts to most currently illegal drugs, including (but not limited to) marijuana, heroin and many hallucinogens. Various caveats apply, depending on which drug we are talking about.

Then I put my taxpayer hat on. I want to people smoking today to sign huge, frightening waivers that preclude them from having any call on my public health dollar. I want yet another special levy put on cigarettes to fund private health insurance for every smoker still extant.

(ASIDE: try this for lively dinner party conversation. Resolved: that welfare recipients be prevented from purchasing and/or consuming tobacco products. Discuss. Hint: make sure the cutlery is out of reach)

DISCLOSURE: I quit smoking in early 1984, age 24. I smoked regularly from age 16, and when I stopped I was a 30 Camels a day man. 18 years on, and it’s still rare for me to go three days without a strong craving for a cigarette. I haven’t had one since 1984, though I do enjoy a cigar 2-3 times a year. I might be wrong, bit I don’t think I’m the only one in the boat.

CONTINUE. My question is this: are we obligated to keep extremely harmful substances out of the hands of the public, when we KNOW the outcomes of consumption? When we know the net effect of smoking in terms of health costs, productivity and lost tax revenue do not make up for the tax revenue collected now. Does personal freedom include the right to knowingly harm yourself, and then expect the public purse to pay for your care?

The immediate response is, and I agree, “Prohibition does not work”. Now I have to point out, for non-Oz readers, that we have very stringent rules about tobacco sales here. It’s illegal to sell cigarettes to under-18’s. There are no vending machines in public places, no advertising in print, television, billboards or point of sale. Australia has achieved one of the lowest rates of smoking in the developed world, and it’s still falling.

So here’s my idea: progressive prohibition. Every year, we raise the age at which it is legal to buy cigarettes. Flag the introduction for say, two years from now, and we take a thirty-year viewpoint. There must be sufficient Federal powers to make it legal. The benefits will come quickly. One of the selling points about tobacco addiction is that it can be conveniently satisfied. There are hundreds of outlets that will sell you cigarettes. Assuming you’re not somewhere in the boonies, then you can usually lay your hands on a smoke inside a half hour. But what if it wasn’t that easy? What if you had to go to a retailer who was prepared to risk heavy fines and possible loss of license for the profit to be made from your pack? Now it’s not convenient.

How many 25 year old smokers will be prepared to risk misdemeanour convictions or fines daily to maintain the habit?

(ASIDE: Is it possible the tobacco companies are funding cancer cure research? Not the causes, just the cure. If they can stay in business until cancer is not such a big deal, they might just fall over the line)

Anyway, that’s my thought for today. For non-Australian readers, I recommend the Action on Smoking and Health site. These guys have achieved very strong results, without government funding. Our past and present governments have resisted funding them since they seem to be bloody effective without it.

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