Blowing smoke in legislators faces

Rodger Scott, ArtSci ’00
Rodger Scott, ArtSci ’00

Yes, tobacco is harmful, but that doesn’t give legislators an excuse to get tunnel vision and lose sight of the big picture; and it doesn’t give the general public the right to take conclusions on faith. Let us begin with taxes.

Both the provincial and federal government levy taxes on tobacco products, which generate, according to Statistics Canada, a yearly sum of about $4.96 billion. What is their rationale for collecting this much tax? The most prominent view, dictated by common sense thinking, is that if you consume tobacco products, a substance correlated with high rates of addiction and even higher rates of toxicity, you will suffer from more health problems, and, as a result, impose greater financial burdens on the medical system than an equivalent non-user.

Given this rationale, the user should only be taxed to cover the entire excess health cost associated with their adverse behaviour, no more and no less. At the current level of taxation, users pay well in excess of what it takes to cover their different health cost.

Second, the entire logic of users adding burdens onto the system is a myth perpetuated by poor thinking and shotgun problem-solving. Why is it a myth? Because tobacco consumers have a lower life expectancy than the healthy average (around mid-fifties to early sixties) so they aren’t around during those later years that are so painfully expensive for the system to cover.

Taken as a whole, having tobacco consumers in an economy is a pretty good deal—they generate a consistent level of tax revenue because their demand for tobacco is inelastic (the price goes up, but the quantity demanded remains the same) and by some twisted form of policymaker logic they support the healthcare system well in excess of their actual burden. In the end, according to one study, non-smokers stand on the shoulders of smokers, being transferred a consistent societal surplus of close to $5 billion per year in direct and indirect tobacco money.

On another tax related issue, usually Canadians don’t like regressive taxes (as the tax rate increases the majority of the burden is placed on those with lower levels of income). This is exactly what a tobacco tax is. If you look at the income distribution of users, you will notice that the majority make less than the average Canadian income. These taxes are imposed on the people who are least able to pay for them.

Another public policy faux pas, has been the ability of legislators to tie the blame for the current health status of many smokers to the tobacco industry. Although there is overwhelming evidence that the big tobacco manufacturers had extensive knowledge of the adverse health effects of tobacco use before the international medical community, this is no excuse to declare war on the entire industry, an industry that is highly profitable, composed of not only big but small players as well. The government must realize that the face of tobacco is not just Imasco or RJR MacDonald, but also Joe the truck driver and Marcy the packager.

Ironically, one of the biggest losers of anti-tobacco legislation is the government, in the form of lost tax revenue. Any time there is a demand decrease, it receives less money to put toward programs that are dependent upon those funds. In a sense, policymakers have unknowingly blindfolded the government, given it a loaded gun, and allowed it to shoot itself in the foot, time and time again.

One of the pivotal, yet subtle, philosophical questions in the tobacco debate is how far the Canadian government should go to protect the citizen from tobacco’s health effects. On the one hand you have total government intervention, ban all tobacco products, total abolition, or on the other you have no intervention, let the market sort out the problem. With the introduction of warning labels on cigarettes, bans on advertisement, and restrictions on smoking in public places, we are obviously leaning closer to the former than the latter. Is this the most efficient, equitable point on the interventionist spectrum?

In my opinion, the government has a role in protecting the young and innocent from purchasing and consuming tobacco, providing information on the harmful effects of use, and taking reasonable steps to prevent third parties from inhaling random, unsolicited second-hand smoke. All, of course, with the exception of the first, should come in varying degrees—too much of anything is not a good thing.

And too much it has been. Although Health Canada has done an excellent job of getting the average Canadian up to snuff on the ills of tobacco use, it still continues to pour taxpayer money into anti-tobacco campaigns as if it were the first time they were introducing the subject to Canadians. It has been shown repeatedly that nowadays adults actually overestimate the health effects of tobacco. So why are they throwing more money into creating awareness where awareness already exists?

People will continue to smoke, and second-hand smoke will continue to be imposed upon the non-smoker. If there are distinct preferences for two groups of people, responsible policy would allow both to exist, each equally sharing the burden of accommodating the other’s behaviour. Yet the reality is that the powers that be are determined to ban smoking everywhere. People learn and times change—can’t we just be happy and accept the startling fact that some people just like to smoke?

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the smoking bans in public places like classrooms, train stations, and work buildings are warranted, but when you cross the line and begin to ban it in bars and coffee shops, establishments whose customer base is dependent upon smokers, you start to infringe upon the rights of individuals.

Instead of banning smoking completely, politicians should allow the market to provide the optimal, private smoking environment, which will have everything from full smoking to no smoking at all—a broad spectrum that empowers the informed consumer to make decisions about their own well-being.

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