Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Smoking

I was on the bus a few months ago, and heard a young lad rant about how unfair it was that there was a heavy tax being put on cigarettes. He argued the tax was a giant money grab, and being directed at mostly lower income individuals and families (since a large degree of smokers are in that category -- though by no means are all). He then went on to proposes a new method of taxation that involved ridiculously high amount of taxation towards higher income families. He is ignoring the simple fact that smokers do cause a financial burden on all tax payers considering that our health care is being paid by our tax dollars. The greater issue to me is figuring out exactly where the taxes on cigarettes are going. I personally think it makes the most sense to use that money to go back into the health care system. There is a very good chance that the smokers are going to have some health complications due to their habit, and so it is the logical conclusion they should foot the bill to some extent. This can be done through the extra taxes levied on cigarettes or other tobacco products.

A few years ago, I remember reading an outline on how taxation against smokers should work. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I'll share a roughly similar idea here. When it comes to buying cigarettes, most are already familiar with the need to show ID before their purchase. So, I feel that the percentage of the taxation should be decided depending on the age of the smoker. For example, anyone who was born prior to about 1965 cannot be held as accountable when it comes to their cigarette addiction. Before then, the damage of cigarettes was largely unknown, and thus a huge amount of the population took to it like it was chewing gum (though probably didn't chew the cigarettes unless they were the Popeye edition). The problem is, cigarettes are incredibly addictive, and curbing an addiction can be about as easy as preventing a St. Bernard from drooling (it may be done, but it is going to be painful and messy). Once the damages of cigarettes became clear then some of those people were able to stop their addiction, but most knew the consequences but were completely hooked. I know a few people that know the physical damage they're doing, but after decades of smoking, they've become dependent. For example, I know how bad it is bad to bite my nails, and I want to stop this very moment. But it has become a habit that most of the time I am not even aware of, and when I become stressed, I'll start having a five course meal on my fingers. Now, my habit doesn't cause cancer thus doesn't provide the same threat to my health, but my nails also don't provide any addictive qualities thus they should be even easier to quit. So, I do think there is a need to be sensitive to the addictive qualities of cigarettes. Especially to those that were born and raised during an era that the public was misinformed to their dangers, Prior to '65 (and especially before the 50s), it was a massive part of the accepted culture, and was advertised in almost every form of media (without any acknowledgment there was harm involved). After all, in the 60s, you had the Flintstones peddling the stuff like they were delicious candy, and so you can really see why so many from that era got hooked.

On the other hand, I am less empathetic to those that were born after 1965. Almost everyone at that point should have been made aware of the harm of cigarettes. Smoking had now becomes a little more taboo among society, and at this point, the dangers were mad clear before you started the habit. By the 70s, there was a ban on them being advertised to children, and I believe were no longer allowed on television or billboards. If they were allowed, there was the infamous surgeon general warning attached. The harms were much clearer. So, I think, when it comes to taxation on cigarettes that there should be a smaller percentage on those who were born before 1965 since they probably got hooked before they knew the harm (and it was now much harder to quit), and a higher taxation on those who were born after 1965. Now, I recognize this is not a foolproof strategy, and there are obvious holes here. I also am not paid to come up with these plans, and did not take weeks planning and formulating it. I am sure with some massive tweaking that it can be more effective than what we have in place now.

In the last few years there have been a few laws and regulations put in place that apparently are supposed to help curb smoking, but I think have been more effective at either annoying non-smokers more or have actually aided in lining the pockets of the bigwig cigarette companies.

A few years ago, the province implemented the strategy of removing all ash trays from public outdoor venues. The ban of smoking in public buildings has been around for almost a decade now, and I do approve of that. More recently has been the ban on smoking outside public buildings or outdoor public places. This means that all ash trays have been removed from places like the bus terminals or parks or the front of government buildings. In theory this is a great idea, because it means that a person waiting for the bus won't be attacked by a legion of cigarette smoke, because there is nowhere to put out the cigarette. But that is the only the ill-conceived theory. The reality is that now the grounds of bus terminals and other outdoor areas are hideously decorated with cigarette butts. There is a sign that is telling people to not smoke near the building or under the shelter, but since many of the employees there smoke, it is not enforced in any way at all. So, basically people smoke just the same as they did before, but now provide the areas with far more litter. The strategy has actually lead to more problems, because now the outdoors looks worse now than they did when ash trays were provided, but with still the same amount of smoke tinged air. It is one of those areas where if they aren't going to enforce the ban on smoking in outdoor places, then they really should just bring back the ash trays, because the current plan is falling under the epic failure category.

There is also a regulation that has been put in place over the last five or so years that the government has touted as a great shot against the big scary cigarette companies, but I also think can be construed as a win-win for them. This is the concealing of tobacco products at convenient or grocery stores. The idea is that since the young and susceptible child can't see the tobacco products that they may believe such things don't exist and thus will never crave the toxic nectar of cigarettes or cigars. But the fact these same kids can still see their peers or their parents or others smoking cigarettes means they actually will still know these products exist and will still find a way to get their grubby little hands on them. It will either mean they'll ask others to purchase it for them, or they will go the illegal black market route (which is far more dangerous and opens them up to other forms of drugs as well).

So, what does the concealing of tobacco products actually do? From my best guess, it causes the buyer to not know what the selection is, and thus more likely to then just choose the big names cigarettes that everyone knows. Rather than just constantly asking the cashier to lift the wall to see, they'll just randomly pick the cigarette name that they have heard of such as Players. What this essentially means is that those big name cigarette companies have secured themselves loyal customers out of the simple fact that customers can't see the other products. The young 19 year old that is in the market for some cancer inducing sticks, will not decide, 'Oh I can't see any cigarettes so I'll just not smoke' but rather, "I'll just say Players because I don't know the other brands." Big Tobacco gets the win.

I know the theory is that kid sees cigarettes on display and now they have the urge to want to buy them and smoke them. But to me, that is a rather faulty idea. Cleaning products and glue are out in the open, but that doesn't mean every kid then has fantasies of sniffing them up in a back room. I also don't see people pushing for cough medicine or Lysol to be kept under lock and key from the sensitive children's eyes. Plus it isn't even like cigarette packages are appealing, unless kids really get excited about the sight of gum disease. The issue isn't about the visibility of the packages, but rather the visibility of seeing people smoke or peer pressure. All this strategy has done is please certain vocal watchdog groups that relish in regulation and red tape, and of course, make the larger cigarette companies rich.

I would not call myself a smoking advocate. For example, I've told myself that I will write almost anything in order to make some sweet, sweet cash, and will not be a writing snob. If it pays well, then I'll likely give it a shot. But I promised myself early on that I would not ever write ads for tobacco companies. I think they do far more harm than good. I feel writing for them would compromise my morals and integrity. So, I think that is evidence I don't endorse smoking. But I do think the current bans and regulations are not necessarily preventing many people from smoking or giving us any actual benefits. I also don't see any value in just banning smoking outright (though the black market would giggle for joy over that). I do think people have a right to smoke, but I also do think my wife and I have a right to breathe clean air too. I think there is a responsibility to keep all informed of the dangers of choosing to use addictive and harmful products like tobacco. At this point, the current strategies against smoking do need a revaluation and in some areas, even an outright overhaul.

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