Health solutions, not taxes, are needed reduce tobacco addiction

June 23, 2023
Crack downs on vape usage will drive more young people to smoke cigarettes
The government's crackdown on vapes will push more young people to cigarettes. Image: Green Left

Health Minister Mark Butler argues that the budget measure to raise the tax on tobacco products is about “harm minimisation” and discouraging smoking. In fact it’s another attack on the poor.

Labor plans to raise the tax on tobacco products by 15.8% over three years will hit poorer people — who are more likely to smoke — much harder.

Butler argues higher taxes would make tobacco consumption “less attractive” and that this will somehow help smokers. This paternalistic age-old argument has been used over and over.

Australia is one of the highest tobacco tax paying countries in the world. An average pack of cigarettes now costs $38.75 and will rise to $48.15 in 2026.

The latest data from the World Health Organization found that tobacco-specific taxes in Australia in 2020 already made up more than 65% of the retail price of a cigarette — the sixth highest rate in the world.

While public health data suggest that higher taxes do have an immediate impact on reducing consumption — especially among higher socio-economic groups — it is a blunt “health measure” for lower socioeconomic groups and if their health was really the main concern, there are plenty of other measures the government could take.

Poorer people are unlikely to be able to afford other health assistance to quit smoking and may simply choose to forego healthy choices to pay for their nicotine addiction.

Butler’s “health” strategy boils down to hitting the consumer (addicted or not), rather than devise and spend on a health policy that addresses the systemic issues that lead to tobacco and drug use.

Research by The Australia Institute found that the Labor budget’s tobacco taxes will raise more — $3 billion — than revenue the small change to the petroleum resource rent tax on the sale of oil and gas products — $2.4 billion.

Why should working class people, suffering from addiction, be paying more than gas companies posting super profits?

As Professor Paul Ward from Flinders University told The Guardian on May 4: “There is this idea that people are making a choice to smoke and that if we nudge them by increasing taxes, they will make a choice not to smoke … We just know that that’s not the case.”

Butler also announced a government crack-down on the use of vapes — banning disposable ones and making reusable vapes available only with a prescription from a pharmacy. The campaign is targeted at young people among who vaping has become increasingly popular: a recent study found that a third of those under 30 have tried vaping and 14% vape regularly.

With access to vapes tightened, young people will likely turn (back) to cigarettes and other tobacco products to satisfy a nicotine addiction.

There are other solutions that do not effectively penalise the poor. If the government was serious about young peoples’ health, free allied health assistance for those trying to quit alongside education (not shock) campaigns on the danger of nicotine addiction would be a good start.

People smoke for many reasons, including intergenerational poverty: an addicted parent is a strong predictor of whether their children will take up the habit.

Tobacco is also a stress relief: many use cigarettes to take the “edge off” a long day at work or navigating day-to-day living under skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures and insecure housing.

Any addiction needs to be treated as a health, not a moral, issue: it’s just not the case that “stronger” people quit. To reduce tobacco usage, and nicotine addiction, governments must concentrate on harm minimisation, not rely on market solutions.

Helping reduce working people’s day-to-day mounting cost-of-living pressures would go a long way to reducing addiction. Expanded access to healthcare, including properly funding bulk billing for all (not just children and welfare recipients) would also.

Education campaigns, including in schools, and well-funded addiction treatment services would have an impact on reducing tobacco use and preventing subsequent health issues.

The dangers of tobacco usage are very real, but we need a needs-based public health approach, not more policies that punish the poor.

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