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Editorial: Tobacco tax increases must be matched by more help for smokers

OPINION: The Government stands accused of making a fortune out of tobacco addicts. The 10 per cent annual increase in tobacco taxes for the next four years will bring in a staggering $425m. The tax increases will, of course, hit the poor hardest.

NZ First leader Winston Peters raises the spectre of poor children going hungry while their addicted parents continue to buy cigarettes. Others have questioned whether the increase in taxes reduces tobacco consumption as much as the Government claims.

It has long been the conventional public health wisdom that price rises cut cigarette consumption. The Government says the 10 per cent annual tax rises in recent years have cut per capita consumption by around a quarter.

There is evidence, however, that the effect on consumption is weakening. Partly this is because the cigarette companies have not passed on the total tax increases, especially in the cheaper brands. If a 10 per cent tax increase leads to only a five per cent price increase, the effect on consumption is lower.

For that reason many public health experts called for a much stiffer tax increase, perhaps as high as 40 per cent in the first year and 20 per cent annual rises after that.

There is a risk that smokers simply factor in the 10 per cent rise and live with it. A much bigger increase would shock many more into quitting.

The Government would have been justified in doing this on public health grounds. After all, about 5000 people in New Zealand die prematurely each year as a result of smoking. Cutting smoking means saving lives.

But the same experts also called for much greater help for smokers to quit. The Government has not done this: it is happy to harvest another $425m from its tobacco tax and use it to help build a surplus (probably for future tax cuts).

The Government should have given a massive boost to quitlines and other programmes to help smokers stop. Poor tobacco addicts, who are disproportionately Maori or Pasifika, need much more help in quitting. Without that help, some will undoubtedly spend scarce family money on tobacco rather than food.

It is, after all, the poor who are the main target of the tax increases. Wealthy smokers won’t be affected, although wealthier people are much less likely to smoke. The middle classes are heading rapidly towards smoke-free status.

Quitlines make it easier for smokers to stop, although their success is modest because smoking addiction is so serious. The Government should be spending more and exploring more imaginative ways of helping addicts. Recent studies in the United States, for example, have explored the effects of simply paying people to quit.

Politicians like Winston Peters, on the other hand, need to be called to account. Is he saying the Government should scrap tobacco tax increases because they are “unfair”?

That would be a mistake.

Smoking, after all, wreaks havoc among poor families, killing and maiming productive family members. The war against smoking must continue.

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