The government of Alberta has introduced a hefty new tax on cigarettes and alcohol, and other provinces are following suit. The tax was implemented on cigarettes without warning, and when added to the November 2001 federal tax increase on tobacco products (1) brings the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Alberta to almost $8.00. For the vocal anti-smoking majority this is great news, it gives them yet another weapon in their fight against the evils of smoking by punishing smokers even further and perhaps providing greater incentive to quit. In Alberta, smokers are already relegated into exile when indulging in their nasty ‘habit’, with no smoking allowed in virtually any public place. Restaurants no longer have smoking sections, unless they do not allow minors (under 18), and the anti-smoking lobby is pushing hard to eliminate smoking in all lounges and bars. But will the new tax result in fewer smokers?
Some statistics seem to support the idea (2). According to a statement made by U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Canadian taxes rising to more than $3 a pack resulted in youth smoking rates dropping by “almost two-thirds since 1980, with the percentage of teenagers smoking daily dropping from 42 percent to 16 percent” (3). This same tax was cut in 1994 in an attempt to curb an unwelcome side-effect — a surge in cross-border smuggling, with cigarette black market cigarettes soon accounting for almost 40 percent of all cigarette sales in Canada (4). According to the Canadian Cancer Society “public health took a giant step backwards in 1994” (5). Youth smoking rates continued to increase, government tax revenues dropped, and tobacco companies remained the big winners with obscene profits amounting to billions of dollars.
Many see tobacco taxes as discriminatory against low-income and minority populations, since it is among these groups that smoking is most common. A recent series of articles on poverty in the Edmonton Journal printed a picture of a poverty-stricken mother hugging her small child with one arm, while holding a cigarette in the other hand. This, of course, resulted in a spate of self-righteous Letters to the Editor condemning this woman for apparently having money for smokes, yet not being able to adequately feed her child.
Another oddity to the whole situation is that the government relies heavily on tobacco taxes to fund many projects, including anti-smoking incentives. Reducing numbers of smokers could then be seen as having a rebound effect in tax hikes occurring elsewhere to make up the shortfall. Even more bizarre is the idea I heard expressed recently that fewer smokers mean better health and longer life for Canadians – and a resulting heavy drain on the resources of Canada’s pension plan and senior services!
Obviously the issue of raising taxes to encourage non-smoking is a complex and multi-faceted one. Those who seem to be ignored in all this are the smokers themselves who have become targets because of their addiction, an addiction that has been recognized as being more powerful than cocaine or heroin (6).
These include many young people who have fallen victim to clever multi-million dollar campaigns aimed at hooking them when they are young and vulnerable. These advertising campaigns are wildly successful – studies have shown Joe Camel to be as recognizable a character to 5 year olds as Mickey Mouse! It is no secret that very few people start smoking after the age of 20, since the ages 13-18 are prime years for becoming addicted. Not only is the developing adolescent brain far more susceptible to developing an addiction, youth rebellion and peer pressure exert a powerful influence. A previous government endeavour to reduce smoking through disgusting and graphic pictures and warnings on cigarette packages had little effect among youth. The pictures became ‘cool’ collectors’ items to young people convinced of their immortality.
Stress relief is another commonly cited side effect of smoking, one that perhaps explains its disproportionately high use among the poor. For many, smoking reduces the discouragement and anxiety brought on by the difficulty of their lives. In addition, smoking-cessation resources are often expensive and inaccessible to those living in poverty, making it less likely they will be able to stop smoking.
Far too many non-smokers and legislators fail to recognize the powerful addiction of nicotine, seeming to take the attitude that smokers can be bullied into quitting through regulation and taxes. They see smoking as nothing more than a dirty ‘habit’ that can be easily broken with just a little willpower, and look down their noses at those living in poverty who seek comfort with nicotine. They fail to acknowledge the reality of physical withdrawal symptoms that can be persistent and severe.
No, I’m not a smoker. But I understand the addiction, and have nothing but admiration for those who struggle to quit. A few years ago as part of a psychology experiment, I tried to see if I could get myself hooked. I was unsuccessful of course, but the experience gave me insight into the appeal of smoking – not only did it ease my headaches, a cigarette is a great stress reducer! My daughter is one of those young people who got hooked at the age of 13. She has tried to quit several times, without success. The increase in cost has certainly been a motivating factor for her, however, and she is now making a serious attempt to break free once and for all. I know how hard it is for her, and I’m doing my best to be as supportive as possible – encouraging her, praising her for her successes, being patient with her moodiness, and reassuring her when she relapses.
Most smokers want to quit. They are well aware of the health dangers to themselves and those around them. Increasing the financial impact of smoking may act as a motivator, but hurting smokers financially is not enough. Quitting is extremely difficult. Those who have become addicted to smoking need help and support in order to successfully break free. Physicians can prescribe tobacco-reduction aids, and there are many good resources through Health Canada, local support groups, and online. Most importantly, smokers need encouragement and understanding from their family and friends. Smoking is not just a bad ‘habit’. It is a powerful physical and psychological addiction that requires a great deal of strength to overcome.
(1) Government of Canada website, November 1, 2001. “Tobacco Tax Increases to Discourage Smoking.” http://www.fin.gc.ca/news01/01-095e.html
(3) C. Everett Koop, U.S. Surgeon General, Washington Post, Sept. 21, 1994; Canada’s Non-Smokers’ Rights Association.
(4) The Washington Times, February 11, 1998. “Smoking Up North”
(6) Health Canada