Get me a packet of Roxon-Menthol and a box of matches
In the wake of last week’s High Court’s decision to uphold the Government’s law mandating that cigarettes be sold in plain olive-coloured green boxes, all the players have behaved exactly as you would have expected.
The Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Health Minister Tanya Plibersek put out a mawkish press release which described the ruling as “a victory for all those families who have lost someone to a tobacco-related illness.’’
“For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is for you,’’ it said in a line which, with a bit of tweaking, might have made a pretty good slogan for a cigarette.
The tobacconists, predictably, saw it differently, saying they were disappointed and vowing to continue their case before the World Trade Organisation.
And the next day just as predictably, The Age newspaper tried to beat up a story about “push’’ for a complete ban on smoking, though best they could do when it came to actually finding someone to call for such a ban was a man called Edmund Bateman, “founder and managing director of Primary Health Care, which runs a nationwide network of medical centres.’’
The Roxon-Plibersek press release came with a list of other measures they have store in for us, the most eye-catching of which is a reduction in the duty free allowance from 250g to 50g beginning in September. What a petty and mean-spirited thing to do.
If I were the tobacco companies I would take my revenge by withdrawing all the present brands of cigarettes – which are shortly to become worthless anyway – replacing them with one all-purpose brand: Roxon.
“Give me a packet of Roxon Menthol and a box of matches,” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
The minister’s ‘fact sheet’ included the claim that the “social and economic costs of smoking in Australia are estimated to be $31.5 billion.” This number is a fantasy, as many people have pointed out, including as it does $19.5 billion for the intangible social costs of smoking including the psychological cost of premature death.
As for the $12 billion in tangible social costs, they’re not too flash either - $9 billion of them come from lost household labour. It also ignores the fact that rare is the smoker with only one vice – they tend to be heavy drinkers and eaters of fatty food all of which make them more fun to be around but can themselves be the causes of ill health and even an early death.
Sticking with official figures however, the actual net cost of medical care for smokers is estimated to be only $318.4 million a year of which only percentage will fall to the taxpayer.
To put that figure in perspective, this year the Federal Government expects to get about $10 billion in customs and excise from tobacco and alcohol, of which the tobacco industry privately estimates around $7.5 billion comes from them. (Incidentally the Treasury’s opinion of the plain packaging measure can be gauged from the fact it is predicting customs and excise revenue to rise this year.)
The silliest thing in the Roxon-Plibersek fact sheet however is its claim that “Tobacco consumption remains one of the leading causes of preventable death”. There is no such thing as a preventable death.
Death may be postponed but it will come to us all in the end, even Nicola and Tanya.
And the biggest crisis the Western world is facing at the moment is not premature death but the consequences of the fact it take so long for us to die. Not merely because of the economic cost, which is already enormous and destined to grow as the baby boomers age, but because while we have postponed death we have not postponed ageing.
Our predicament now resembles perfectly that of the Struldbrugs, those being cursed with immortality without youth, that Jonathan Swift had Gulliver visit on the island of the Luggnaggians:
“As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge….At ninety, they lose their teeth and hair; they have at that age no distinction of taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue, without increasing or diminishing. In talking, they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations.”
It’s enough to make you want to light up isn’t it?
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