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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Smokers Are Jokers

New Zealand has a problem. We have succeeded in fostering a culture built around a vice that is now taking its toll – this vice is responsible for 24 per cent of injuries and a whopping 36 per cent of trips to A&E. According to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, 513,000 New Zealanders use this product harmfully, but because of the big pockets of corporate lobbyists, efforts to tackle the problem have been inadequate. In 2005 alone, abuse of this substance cost the Government about $4.8 billion in tangible and intangible costs.

I am, of course, talking about alcohol.

I purchased my first pack of cigarettes at an impressionable, restless 15; they cost me ten bucks. I could have, at the time, opted for a budget brand called ‘[something]-eights’, named in virtue of how much a pack of them cost. Flash-forward six years, and most brands of tailor-made cigs go for nigh-on 20 bucks a pop – more if you prefer to smoke ‘premium’ brands like Benson & Hedges and Rothmans. The drastic price increase is due to higher taxes on the product by the New Zealand Government. In 2010, the Tobacco Tax Increase Bill passed 118–4 under urgency. Since then, taxes on tobacco products have been raised incrementally by ten per cent on a yearly basis in an attempt to both curb smoking and recoup the social costs caused by smoking.

Being a smoker ain’t easy in this day and age. When you smoke at a party, you suffer glares from the healthy-minded saints among you (at least until they get drunk enough to bum one off you and then proceed to bum-puff it before your very eyes while you silently beseech your God to give you strength). At worst, you will get openly vocalised hostility, and exaggerated coughing followed by a telling smirk or the kind of sneer that symbolises a desire to spit in your face, or at least haul you before some tribunal to be arraigned for your crimes.

To be clear, there is very good reason to loathe smoking as a habit. Smoking is bad, it should be eradicated, the end. It is scientifically proven that smoking causes: “Lung cancer, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and pancreas cancers, vascular disease, respiratory disease, increased risk of infertility, preterm delivery, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome and untreatable blindness”. It makes you reek, makes acne worse, deadens your skin, renders your formerly voluptuous hair listless. Perhaps most tragically, for your friends, family and whānau, your life is cut short about 15 years prematurely. That’s 15 years that you could have spent with these people which has been cruelly usurped from you, and one would have to be tremendously callous not to be moved by that.

However, the narrative that smoking is bad, and that ‘Big Tobacco’ (the unholy trinity of Philip Morris, Imperial and British American) is bad, is being directed in such a way that it ends up maligning smokers themselves rather than the habit or its enablers.

Let’s start with the tax hike. As covered in the infographic, for every dollar spent on ciggies, the Government takes 75 cents. The rest is divvied up between the retailer and the tobacco companies. This means that the Government isn’t only recouping the costs involved with smoking addiction. Every year means a $350 million bill that the Government has to foot because of the ill-effects of tobacco. The Government now gets $1.3 billion. That is a billion-dollar discrepancy in what is essentially a rort on smokers.

As Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), an anti-tobacco lobby group, concedes, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to quitting smoking”, and hurling nicotine patches and gum at the problem from afar will not work for everyone. The Government is not exploring options such as decreasing tax on herbal gaspers, nicotine-free fags, low-tar durries or e-cigs, despite the growing evidence that these may be more effective in enabling a person to escape tobacco’s clutches than the remedies currently at hand. In the case of the e-cigarette, the Government is actively curtailing them by banning their importation – essentially gifting tobacco companies a monopoly that it can reap the benefits of.

 

While it did enact legislation specifically targeting Big Tobacco’s stranglehold by banning tobacco retailers from displaying cigarettes to the public, Big Tobacco always has the resources to exploit loopholes. Now, a vividly red (not coincidentally, the colour of many cigarette packets) slogan, which can be handily affixed to a ciggy cabinet, implores potential cigarette buyers to ‘ask me how much’. Meanwhile, planned legislation that would force plain packaging on cigarettes is likely to be stalled until Big Tobacco’s lawsuit against Australia is resolved – and in all likelihood cannot go forward based on trade agreements the Government has chosen to enter into.

There is more than a whiff of disingenuousness on the Government’s part. While there are vague plans to make New Zealand ‘smokefree by 2025’, the Government still allows cigarettes to be sold, thereby enabling smokers to keep smoking and earn da gummint da moolah. Ever wondered why they don’t ban them outright? Shit, I mentioned earlier that cigarettes have doubled in price in the past six years. Do you know what other business scheme involves a) knowingly allowing a highly addictive substance to be sold, thus implicitly encouraging its sale and then b) upping the price once the buyer is hooked? Drug dealing. If I’m pissed off, it’s because the Government tacitly enabled my addiction and is now reaping a billion-dollar reward from it. Smokers are getting roundly fucked from every conceivable direction. The Government profits off our addiction, despite allowing us to indulge in it. Retailers profit off our addiction. Corporations profit off our addiction, and we’re the ones held culpable for this massive clusterfuck. The Government can have its cake and eat it too while smokers are left marginalised and voiceless.

These misplaced anti-smoker regulations have extended to the realm of tertiary education. Last year, Victoria University instigated a cunning new plan whereby smoking was banned from campus. Great! No more polluted air for the sanctimonious, and a sanitised campus the Chancellors can show distinguished overseas guests. How could the smoking populace cock the whole thing now? It had little tangible effect. Some people still disobediently smoke on campus, others choose to line the entrance to Victoria University, students and staff are still complaining, and smokers are fuming in more ways than one – as VUWSA Vice-President Rick Zwaan describes it, it’s a “lose-lose”. Well, unless you count the artificial sense of self-importance bestowed on the University for ‘taking a stand’ against those blighted smokers. Indeed, VUWSA voted against identifying themselves (well except for self-identified right-winger Jordan McCluskey and Simon Tapp) as being in favour of the smoking ban, with Zwaan saying “we didn’t want to ostracise smokers even more” – recognising that some of the populace he represents are, in fact, smokers.

This particular angle doesn’t even come close to tackling the enormity of the negative effects of indicting smokers. It has been decried as a ‘war on the poor’, and if you look at the stats, this isn’t incorrect. Those in lower socioeconomic brackets are up to twice as likely to smoke than the rest of us, and more Māori and Pasifika people smoke proportionate to Pākehā. Many of these people do not have access to the kind of support and initiatives middle-class people who want to quit do, and for many of them, smoking, with the relaxation it brings, is a symptom, not a cause, of their poverty.

Then there’s the mental-health component. 90 per cent of incoming patients with schizophrenia smoke and, as unpalatable as the conclusion is, smoking has the effect of regulating brain patterns – which significantly ameliorates symptoms of schizophrenia, anxiety and – surprisingly – Alzheimer’s. The official policy, backed by the Mental Health Foundation, is that smoking cessation is achievable for people with mental-health needs. This is directly contrary to all the empirical research conducted on the matter so far, which endorses cutting back but specifically rejects complete cessation as being conducive to the mental needs of a suffering individual.

If all this is news to you, it is because smokers are systematically denied a voice in the debate that targets them. When I talked to ASH, I asked whether smokers’ voices should be included in the debate. Their answer was telling: “where we are seeing smokers’ voices in debates, it’s not coming across as genuine. It seems totally rehearsed and contrived by tobacco companies”. That is, of course, unless their opinion conforms to the prevailing orthodoxy: then, suddenly, their opinion is recognised as legitimate. We need to listen to all smokers, from the ones who want to quit to the ones that enjoy it enough to want to keep going (if you’ve had a first cigarette of the day with coffee or a last cigarette of the night with a glass of red, you’ll understand), and then address their needs according to their feedback.

It is understandable that you object to smoking, and laudable that you want to stop Big Tobacco. But please, refrain from putting smokers under your crosshatches – until smokers are provided with adequate resources to overcome their addiction and stop getting taxed to the hilt unjustly, you just don’t have that right. Butt out.

When you smoke at a party, you suffer glares from the healthy-minded saints among you (at least until they get drunk enough to bum one off you and then proceed to bum-puff it before your very eyes while you silently beseech your God to give you strength).

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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