WHO calls on smokers to cough up

As a pack-a-day  smoker, with numerous failed attempts to quit under my belt, the WHO recommendation of a two euro  increase in cigarette tax can only be a good thing in aiding my efforts. However, it brings us once again to the often debated contention between personal choice, a “nanny state” and the duty of care of those in power towards their people.

To consider first the tax itself, an increase in tax on cigarettes would be the latest in a series of measures to attempt to dissuade smokers. Smoking, aside from creating a huge drain on state health services, also results in misery for many families.
The key focus of such policies is teenagers, putting cigarettes financially out of reach and aiming to make them less attractive to the group with the highest number of people taking up smoking.

Such policies however, whilst they may prevent a few, ultimately fail to address the key motivations for starting and continuing. Group mentality proves to be the strongest influence; if your friends are smokers, you may try it, and more often than not, become a smoker yourself. A further problem is not so much a sense of being invincible as being unable to compute the reality of having cancer or emphysema. However much one tries, it is practically impossible to summon up the feelings of fear and self-reproach that must come when being diagnosed with cancer as a smoker. So when someone asks “but surely you know you are killing yourself?”,  you reply “yes, I do” without really believing it. Much like an illicit love affair, knowing it is wrong and allowing this knowledge to stop you continuing are two different things.
Ultimately, in relation to its effectiveness as a deterrent, an economic issue raised in discussions about taxation, and applicable to smokers of all ages, is that items such as cigarettes and alcohol are seen as being “sticky prices”. An increase in cigarette tax will lead to a minimal distortion in the number of packets sold, making it a very good product to tax for a government wanting to raise extra revenue, but a poor tactic if the issue at stake is reducing the numbers of smokers.

Considering the reality that this measure, if implemented, will ultimately have a minimal effect on the smoking level, is it just another example of western Europe’s move towards creating a Europe of “nanny states”? Is the consequence of increased interference by the state in the private lives of individual a relatively harmless symptom of something much bigger: the erosion of civil liberties?

Political debate from the time of Hobbes and Locke has centered around the role of the state and the line between public and private life. The state in theoretical arguments, is often seen as a necessary inconvenience which should be responsible for justice, and responsible for as little else as possible. The UK is noted for its level of state intervention, with its largely ineffective ASBO system, and the vast CCTV network which is estimated to have one camera per fourteen citizens. In Ireland, health and safety neuroticism is such that in 2005, a Boy Scouts’ 100 year celebration was prevented from lighting bonfires.

Is this undeniable increase in state involvement a bad thing? On the face of it, no. Who really opposes CCTV on high streets to catch out thieves and people mugging old ladies, except the thieves and muggers themselves? Equally, if an ASBO was enough to prevent a group of youths terrorising an estate, it could only be seen as a good thing. However the reality raises several issues. In the first instance these state measures, much like the WHO call for increased cigarette tax, are often largely ineffective. CCTV in the UK is used to solve only one out of every 1000 crimes, despite having cost £200,000,000 for London alone, whilst an ASBO among some groups has become something of a badge of pride.

Equally however some elements of the neurotic state can be justified. For all those who complain bitterly about a nanny state preventing people from living freely, smoking, drinking and walking under ladders to their hearts content, health, safety and well-being neuroticism can be seen to be a product of the society in which we live. In essence, much of it is concerned with covering local authorities backs and mitigating the risk of being sued for personal damages. Really the problem lies in the abuse of the powers of interference leading to concerns of a surveillance state, evoking images of Stalinist Russia or Orwell’s 1984. Local UK councils have been accused of abusing surveillance powers for trivial matters such as catching people putting out their bin on the wrong day, whilst powers brought in on the basis of combating a real terrorist threat are used to stop and search people for offences related to anti-social behaviour and motoring.

In other words, the principles behind the majority of these measures are, to the law abiding citizen, perfectly reasonable. What is needed is, on the one hand, tighter regulation on the use of surveillance powers and more justification for using them, and, on the other, more discretion by the judicial system. We need a shift in  perspective so that the authorities credit people with enough common sense to know that if they put their hand in the fire, it will get burnt.  In time this may, bring down the degree of neuroticism attached to health and safety.

So, to return to our cigarette tax; is raising the price in line with the WHO recommendation an erosion of personal choice? To an extent, it certainly attempts to limit choice through the removal of purchasing power. Will it reduce the number of people smoking? Not materially. Should it be implemented? Yes. We all know the Irish Government is facing a huge deficit, and surely it is better to target smoking rather than taking away medical cards, particularly when we smokers are the most likely to make use of them.