Time to rethink the tobacco problem?

Violent robberies of dairies and service stations have increased, with tobacco products often being the target. Is it time taxes on tobacco were reassessed?

I received this by email:

I find the zealotry of Turia on tobacco incredibly naive.

NZ has a huge problem with P and cannabis, not to mention black market tobacco, precisely because the taxes of tobacco have been increased so sharply. It was silly to think you could tax it out of existence, people can and will use substitutes. Entirely foreseeable side effects and banning dairies from selling tobacco will only run owners out of business and shift robberies to petrol stations and supermarkets.

I can understand the zealotry of Tiriana Turia to an extent, as Maori have been affected disproportionately by adverse effects of smoking. She drove the substantial increase in tobacco tax, and this has been effective in lowering rates of smoking.

Smokefree NZ: What are our smoking rates and how are they changing?

Smoking rates in New Zealand Aotearoa continue to reduce, with 17% of adults currently smoking, of which 15% smoke daily (this has dropped from 25% in 1996/97).

Although 605,000 New Zealand adults still smoke, over 700,000 have given up smoking and more than 1.9 million New Zealanders have never smoked regularly.

That means over 2 million people, over half the population, must have smoked regularly at some time in their lives.

Smoking has changed in the last half century from a socially acceptable (by those who smoked) widespread practice to a fringe activity.

Social pressure against smoking and rising prices are having an effect overall.

  • Youth aged 15–17 6% (down from 16% in 2006/07)
  • Young adults 18-24 24% (down from 28% in 2006/07; however this age range now has the highest smoking rates of any age group)

Younger people are smoking much less, perhaps due to price pressure as much as peer pressure, but rates jump when they have more money available.

However Turia’s concerns are obvious when you see this demographic:

  • Māori adults 38% (40% in 2007)

That’s over twice the overall rate, and it has hardly come down. So price pressure can’t be working effectively.

  • Pacific adults 24% (26% in 2007)

That hasn’t moved much either.

Is it time for a rethink on how to address this? Maori and Pacific people may need different incentives to quit smoking (or better, to not start smoking). Rising prices just seems to give some an incentive to steal.

Maori and Pacific Island people also figure disproportionately in unemployment and low incomes. The price of tobacco puts even more financial pressure on them.

Logically one might think that $20 a packet of cigarettes – that used to be a common daily consumption level – would be a huge deterrent, but for some demographics it obviously isn’t working much.

Why do young people start smoking in the first place? Not getting addicted is an obvious aim, but prevention is proving difficult amongst Maori in particular.

Further increases in prices are likely to increase related crime, increase deprivation and push some to other drugs – cannabis must be getting price competitive, and smokers must be more easily tempted harder drugs as well.

It looks obvious that a rethink and a different approach is needed.

It’s easy to see what is not working, but it’s a lot more difficult to come up with effective solutions.