Tobacco Taxes

So, the New Zealand government has voted 118-4 to increase the sin tax on tobacco.  The funny thing is, the move was led by the Maori party, whose supporters contain a disproportionate number of smokers who probably don’t want a tax increase, and supported by the centre-right National party, who campaigned on an anti-nanny state platform.  I’m with Eric on this:

You know who I really feel bad for? The folks who voted National thinking they’d get less nanny-state as consequence. And, worse, the folks who campaigned for them on that basis. Think harder about it next time, guys.

While I know most politicians don’t feel the need to justify the passing of laws, surely there must be some among those 118 who think that there should be some sort of reason.

Do we need to increase tobacco taxes to pay for the costs of smoking on the health system? Nope: smokers pay more than their share. On that basis, we’d decrease the excise tax considerably.

Does ignorance among smokers as to the true health costs of smoking undermine the welfare-maximising tendency of free choice, meaning we need to force people to do what they’d do given full information. Nope. Even if you think ignorance justifies coercion, the fact is that people radically overestimate the health risks of smoking. If we wanted to encourage people to make the decisions they’d make if they were fully informed, we’d subsidize tobacco.

The real reason for increasing the excise tax on tobacco is a combination of arrogant paternalism and bigotry. Turia and Key think they know what’s best for you better than you do yourself and see smokers as disgusting deviants who must be punished. As Joseph Gusfield (writing about alcohol) says:

As his own claim to social respect and honor are diminished, the sober, abstaining citizen seeks for public acts through which he may reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his way of life. Converting the sinner to virtue is one way; law is another.

Anyone in favour of the increase care to offer another explanation?

This Week in Moral Panic

A few stories from New Zealand over the past few days:

Cheap smokes!

“I’m bloody horrified, but not surprised at their tactics,” [Maori Party MP Hone Harawira] said. “There’s now overwhelming support from New Zealanders to get rid of tobacco in this country and companies are doing their best to hook as many people as possible now, so they’re lowering prices and upping nicotine and marketing into places like Aranui and Otara.”

“What they are doing is maximising their profit before their demise and they don’t care that they’re killing New Zealanders to achieve it,” he said.

Gangs!

Local government leaders are seeking a law change to allow other councils to follow Whanganui’s lead and ban gang patches.

Whanganui was given the right to pass a bylaw last year banning all gang insignia except tattoos from public places, but other councils wanting to do the same must get their own enabling law through Parliament.

Party pills!

Police and customs officials are worried a party drug linked to the deaths of two teenagers in Britain is now circulating in New Zealand.

It is feared the banned drug mephedrone, also known as M-cat, meow and plant food, is growing in popularity as a substitute for ecstasy. (…)

Although no cases have turned up at hospital emergency departments as yet, potential side effects of the drug range from vomitting, nausea and nose bleeds, right through to hallucinations, fits, paranoia, anxiety and depression.

The long-term side effects are still not known.

Child sexualization!

“It is time to confront the issue of ‘corporate pedophilia’ and the ‘raunch culture’ which is harming the self-esteem, body image and academic performance of our young people,” says Mr McCoskrie.

Gambling!

The findings were clear – every additional pokie machine in a community results in .8 new problem gamblers. Further, there is no evidence that this plateaus.

Graeme Ramsey, Problem Gambling Foundation CEO, says research such as this should inform gambling policy.

Stand by for regulation.

Having it Both Ways

From p. 396 of Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess:

Yet the strangest situation of all had been rendered legal by a decision of the Supreme Court. The Court had ruled that the Bureau of Internal Revenue had the right to request income-tax returns from bootleggers. The Court saw no reason “why the fact that a business is unlawful should exempt it from paying the tax that if lawful it would have to pay.” In the argument of the case, it was even suggested that bribes paid to government officials might be held deductible as business expenses. To this day [1962], the bootleggers of the last dry state in the Union, Mississippi, pay federal income tax and a state tax on their illegal profits.

 

The Best Sentence I Read Today

When Wheeler publicly praised the insertion of poison into industrial alcohol on the theory that those who drank it were committing deliberate suicide, he did not persuade others of the humanitarian aims of the League.

Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, p. 336. Poison is still added to some industrial alcohol, of course.

Brewery Launches Low-Alcohol Beer, Calls it Nanny State

Awesome:

A brewery has launched a low alcohol beer called Nanny State after being branded irresponsible for creating the UK’s “strongest beer”.

Scottish brewer BrewDog, of Fraserburgh, was criticised for Tokyo* which has an alcohol content of 18.2%. (…)

BrewDog founder James Watt explained on his blog: “Anyone who knows BrewDog, knows beer, or anyone has more common sense than a common (or garden) gnome will know that the scathing and unrelenting criticism we faced was pretty unjustified.

“If logic serves the same people who witch-hunted and publicly slated us should now offer us heartfelt support and public congratulations.

“However I fear that this, unfortunately, is an arena devoid of logic and reason.” (…)

Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said of the new Nanny State beer: “This is a positive move which proves that low strength doesn’t compromise quality.

“However the name of the beer proves that once again this company is failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the alcohol problem facing Scotland.”

BrewDog’s blog post is here. They don’t seem to ship outside the UK, but Brits can buy Tokyo* here and Nanny State here.

Also, I hereby double dare The Epic Brewing Company to make an 18.2% or stronger beer. I will consume some without imposing external costs on others. You will be labelled irresponsible and get some free publicity. Geoffrey Palmer will be filled with righteous anger. Everybody wins.

That Word Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means…

The title of this press release from Living Streets Aotearoa – “Helping Kiwis Choose to Walk More Often” – nicely illustrates how seriously most public health advocates, environmentalists, and other do-gooders take the concept of choice.

If you want to help someone make a choice, you could give them information or point out any flaws you find in their reasoning; but when you’ve decided in advance what the right choice is, you are not taking their capacity as a person capable of agency seriously. You know what the right choice is and want to manipulate people or alter the incentives people face in order for them to do what you want. What the press release really means is “Making Kiwis Walk More Often Without Using Force.” That’s not a goal I find particularly objectionable, but it has nothing to do with helping anyone choose anything.

At least in this case nobody seems to be using coercive means such as sin taxes to “empower” smokers or fatties to make the right choices.

How Not to Take Rights Seriously

Readers of this blog are no doubt aware that I’m no fan of paternalist public health policies and the unquestioned assumption that the regulator knows the utility function of a person they’ve never met better than that person knows it themself. There’s one academic paper, however, which since I read it around a year ago has pissed me off more than almost anything else I’ve ever read. It is Katz, J.E. 2005. ‘Individual Rights Advocacy in Tobacco Control Policies: An Assessment and Recommendation.’ Tobacco Control 14: ii31–ii37.

Katz begins with some confused waffling about the philosophy of individual rights, stating that:

Three subtypes of individual rights can be distinguished: the right to life, liberty, and use of private property. The first two of these rights can be considered political rights in contrast with the more restricted right of property use; however, there is an overlap and this can lead to confusion. All three aspects of individual rights are central to ETS [Environmental Tobacco Smoke] but in different ways. It is clear that ETS interferes with an individual’s physical and mental health, and thus can be construed as violating one’s right to life. This interference occurs whether or not ETS is sanctioned by governmental or corporate policies. Another interference caused by those who smoke is that their activity (that is, creating ETS) violates the rights of others to be let alone to pursue their own interests and activities—that is, it harms their liberty. The third individual rights subtype is to use one’s own property as one wishes. This may include producing, marketing, and using a commercial product, such as tobacco. (…)

Failing to stop tobacco use in public places is a violation of the rights of non-smokers, as may be seen by the definition of rights referring to the obligation to act to help others have their rights. Hence tobacco control is a justified way to protect the individual rights of the non-smoker. Indeed, the theories of Robert Nozick, an influential Libertarian philosopher, can be readily used to justify restrictions on smoking in public places.

Katz obviously isn’t very familiar with moral philosophy. I can’t really be bothered arguing against this nonsense. Suffice it to say that harm != rights violation. It’s not this confused and/or obscurantist characterization of rights which offends me most, however.

What really grinds my gears is the horribly Machiavellian attitude taken towards individual rights language. Katz argues that it is important for tobacco control advocates to take individual rights seriously not because individual rights are something which ought to be taken seriously, but because it will further their goal of banning smoking in public places. Katz is quite clear that the rights of nonsmokers to not be exposed to secondhand smoke should be placed firmly above the rights of smokers. Katz concludes:

As a general posture, policy should be designed to be responsive to individual rights of both smokers and non-smokers, with right to life/health (that is, rights of non-smokers) having priority. Policy could be framed so that smoking would not be permitted in co-occupied places, such as offices, sidewalks, and parks, but that appropriately informed adults would, with some restrictions, still be entitled to smoke in private. A policy along these lines could serve the cause of tobacco control advocacy by reinforcing further the community’s dedication to the concept of individual rights. Especially commended to advocates is the use of the hierarchy described above (which places life and health above liberty to use property). (…)

Still greater emphasis on individual rights of non-smokers should help maintain or even accelerate progress towards smoke-free air in all public and shared private places.

So individual rights are not something tobacco control advocates need to seriously consider, but rather something to be cynically manipulated to achieve their goals of stopping me from smoking as I walk along the road. I guess I should be happy that in Katz’s utopian society I’ll be permitted – if appropriately informed, of course – to smoke in private. That’s more than some influential people at home and abroad would grant me.

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