Nanny state’s thriving on tax harvested from smokers
The latest move by the Federal Government to make smoking a habit of the past is the latest salvo in the rapid expansion of the nanny state.
Recently the Health Minister Nicola Roxon re?announced the government's intention to force tobacco companies to adopt plain packaging for all cigarette brands.
From next year, smokers will be greeted with a standard olive?green packet emblazoned with graphic health warnings screaming that "every cigarette is doing you damage".
With tobacco companies looking to exercise their right to legally challenge the potential loss of trade marks that are represented in existing packaging, the recent ministerial announcement is by no means the end of the matter.
According to statistics supplied by the government's own health preventative taskforce, smoking prevalence amongst the adult male population has fallen from 40 per cent in 1980 to 21 per cent in 2007 with smoking rates lower for females.
In seeking to speed up smoking quit rates the government has relied on two general premises that do not stand up to closer scrutiny.
The government has stated that the costs of treating tobacco?related illnesses, such as lung disease, on the public health system are substantial, and that action is needed to reduce these costs.
However, it is incorrect to regard the pecuniary effects of private actions as an externality and thus it is unclear that the fiscal implications of tobacco use should be of concern to government.
In any case, the amount of tobacco excise fees collected by the government is well in excess of even generous estimates of tobacco consumption costs on the health care system.
The second assertion is that since tobacco is addictive smokers have lost their free will to quit, and so governments should do whatever it takes to nudge people away from Winnie Blues, rollies or Havanas.
Apart from the fact that smokers today are very well informed about the health risks, and choose to stick with their habit, a growing portion of non?smokers today were smokers in the past.
Instead of all the energy and expense involved in hectoring people to quit, an obvious question to ask is why governments could not ban smoking altogether?
Growing evidence from Australia and overseas suggests that high tobacco taxes and official restrictions on legal tobacco sales encourages black markets in the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
In other words, promises by government to make smoking "history" are largely empty ones given its vested interest in taxing legal tobacco rather than collecting no tax from illegal black market products.
And, as Rex Jory reported on The Punch earlier this week, groups such as the Cancer Council are agitating for blanket bans on smoking in private residences such as apartments.
This comes on the back of reports earlier this year of apartment owners in Sydney's inner west which are looking to ban smoking inside flats and even on breezy balconies.
These ideas flagrantly violate the age?old notion that one's home is one's castle and that anyone who seeks to violate what we do in our own private home space is tantamount to raiding our castle.
While most non?smokers might look dimly on the rights of smokers to indulge their habit, there is a fundamental issue at stake affecting all Australians.
At what point does the government stop interfering with individual rights to enjoy pleasures, even guilty ones that cause individual harm in some cases?
As the economist James Buchanan wrote in 1986:
Let those who would use the political process to impose their preferences on the behavior of others be wary of the threat to their own liberties ... The apparent costlessness of restricting the liberties of others through politics is deceptive. The liberties of some cannot readily be restricted without limiting the liberties of all.
So, like to indulge in an occasional flutter on the pokies or a punt on Black Caviar? Enjoy a burger with fries on the weekend?
Governments are increasingly interfering with our choices in these areas, too, which in some instances could never have been contemplated even in the recent past.
Many of us may not agree with the habit of smoking, but there are inherent risks in the majority of us consenting to the fiscal and regulatory exploitation of a minority of smokers.
This is because, just as the economist Buchanan warned over twenty years ago, we just might find nanny governments gradually taking away our rights to choose in many other areas of life.