Australia’s three million-odd smokers had already been paying an extra $5.5 billion a year in tax to smoke, or about $1800 each. Last year the government hiked taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products by another 25%. And never mind that smokers tend to be from the poorer end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Smokers are being already being ripped off. The push for plain packaging is just insulting.

I don’t smoke. Indeed, I used to hate leaving bars hoarse, with inflamed eyes, putrid clothes and an infinitesimally higher risk of cancer. Thankfully, I no longer have to. These days, smokers have to brave the elements or puff away at home. Legislators have banned smoking in enclosed public places.

This is fair. It was never right that smokers could so blatantly pollute non-smokers’ personal space. But the taxes smokers pay and the plan to impose “plain packaging” on tobacco products are not fair.

What about the burden smokers impose on the rest of us through the health system, you say? True, smokers put their own health at risk and therefore everyone else’s taxes. Our public health system means we subsidise each other’s ailments and accidents.

Non-smokers quite rightly might not want to pay for smokers’ health immolation. So it makes sense for smokers to cough up some extra money to help offset their health costs.

But what about the comparison? Beer drinkers, a vastly larger (and I would hazard richer) group, pay a smidge over $2 billion a year in tax to drink. So it must be the case, then, that the public costs of smoking are massively greater than those arising from drinking beer.

But does anyone seriously believe that? Think of all the bashings, r-pes, accidental cuts and bruises, emotional breakdowns, family bust ups, and diseases that stem variously from acute and chronic consumption of beer. Smoking is apparently worse.

Moreover, it is not even clear that smokers are a drain on the public purse. Chronic smoking is supposed to knock about 10 years off a smoker’s life, on average. Most smokers are destined to receive the age pension, which costs the government about about $17,420 a year per single recipient. This is a huge saving to offset any costs smokers generate while alive. And this calculation excludes the countless other subsidies, concessions and benefits that governments shovel at age pensioners.

So the average smoker is paying extra annual tax of about $2,200 while working, and forgoing $17,420 a year income for at least 10 years in retirement. That’s a lot of doctors’ visits.

Plain packaging is the latest insult to people’s intelligence (the products are already compulsorily hidden from view in shops). Surely it is clear enough that cigarette smoking can lead to undesirable health effects. After all, the packets themselves are already forced to scream “SMOKING KILLS” — pretty unambiguous.

As with the taxation of tobacco products, plain packaging smacks of a mindless crusade against smokers. Provided bystanders are not harmed, it is not for government to determine which pastimes are appropriate. And for the most part it doesn’t: where are the pictures of alcohol-fuelled injuries on beer cans, grotesquely fat people on hamburger packaging, or rotting teeth on soft drink cans?

It is sad, but we are all going to die of something. In any case our ever-longer lives are often marred by years of dementia and debility. At least smokers don’t have to wait around for all that.

CORRECTION: Crikey originally published a draft version of this story in error and some of the figures have since been amended: the mistake was made in the subbing process.

— Australia’s three million-odd smokers had already been paying an extra $5.5 billion a year in tax to smoke, or about $1800 each — originally read: Australia’s four million-odd smokers had already been paying an extra $5.5 billion a year in tax to smoke, or about $1200 each.

— Most smokers are destined to receive the age pension, which costs the government about about $17,420 a year per single recipient — originally read: $16,000 a year per recipient.

— The average smoker is paying extra annual tax of about $2,200 while working, and forgoing $17,420 a year income for at least 10 years in retirement — originally read: the average smoker is paying extra annual tax of about $1,600 while working, and forgoing $16,000 a year income for 10 years in retirement.

Peter Fray

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