Radical Plans for Tobacco

Dr Nick Wilson and a bunch of his mates at the Wellington School of Medicine have come up with a fairly sensible solution to what he calles “the tobacco problem”. The NZ Herald reports that it would involve “a non-profit tobacco authority to take over the distribution and sale of cigarettes and other tobacco, forcing out the three multinationals that now control the industry.” Tobacco brands would disappear from our shelves, and (I assume) state-made cigarettes would be purchasable in packets decorated with health warnings. Then the authority would “regularly increase the price to deter smoking, using its income to help prevent children taking up the habit, expand quitting assistance and develop ways to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.”

It’s a pretty good idea, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t come up it myself, which I did and published it in Craccum as an editorial in the first half of this year. Of course, it’s not a new idea, and of course, I wasn’t talking about tobacco. I was talking about crystal meth.

Legalise P. Make a non-profit authority the only legal manufacturer and distributor. A state-run crystal meth agency (Methcorp) would easily undercut the prices on the market today, and also be able to ensure a certain level of quality of product. The purchases would be taxed, as would the incomes of people working jobs created by Methcorp: manufacturing, retailing, researching addiction, treatment. Money would be taken out of the hands of gangs and into the hands of the public, where presumably it would be put to more productive use.

Neither idea is likely to be put into practice in the current climate. The reasons for this are quite different, though, which is interesting.

Legalising crystal meth is immediately dismissed by most people. Firstly, they think that legalisation means condonement, and they don’t want to see their representative government saying it’s okay. Secondly, the assumption is that availability means proliferation. The first objection assumes that legal means good, and thus that bad things should be illegal. The second objection assumes that the illegality of crystal meth is the main thing stopping any number of non-tweakers starting up.

The state acting to stop tobacco use is also immediately dismissed by most people. They talk about freedom of individual choice to smoke or not to smoke. The banning of smoking in businesses is grudgingly accepted, because it relies on the same premise: that other people in the room have the right not to smoke. Taxes on tobacco are grudgingly accepted, because they are justified in terms of the greater burden on the public-health system. Dr Wilson’s plan, however, is correctly seen by smokers as the next step towards banning tobacco outright. Most of those who accept those previous steps – no public smoking and taxes on tobacco – will not accept this one.

I don’t think I’m wrong to say “most people” in the preceding paragraphs. To take it a step further, we can say that most people think that crystal meth is bad and so shouldn’t be legal, while tobacco can be legal while not being considered good.

So what is the difference in the minds of the public between these two addictive, poisonous compounds? For one, the worst consequences of P use are sudden and dramatic. Sometimes they involve samurai swords. For tobacco, the worst consequences are vague and nebulous, and in the distant future.

But mostly, I think, it’s more a matter of who uses the products at the moment. The majority of voters know someone who smokes tobacco, or smoke themselves. In other words, people like them smoke. Whereas few voters know someone who takes P. They don’t know anyone who takes P, they don’t know any violent criminals or gang members, and when they do hear about P in the media, it’s always with regard to violent crime or gangs. People like them don’t take P, criminals do, and the last thing we need is more criminals.

The contrast is a bit clearer when you compare crystal meth to alcohol, which is causally linked to domestic violence, violent crime and deadly car accidents – far more, proportionally, than similarly sever consequences of crystal meth. But because most of the people you know drink alcohol without doing any of these things, the problem clearly doesn’t lie with the alcohol, but with the Other People. And because almost everyone you hear about using P does these things, the problem doesn’t lie with the people, but with the P.

Interesting that the same plan for eliminating something that harms a society is politically unviable in two instances for such different reasons. Tobacco is too popular to eliminate, while crystal meth is too unpopular to eliminate.

Getting back to the point. The plan is a good one, if there is a serious intention to end tobacco use in New Zealand. Smokers don’t want to end smoking in New Zealand, because they live in New Zealand and they like smoking. They like smoking because they have smoked it in the past and are now addicted. They have a vote, and will use it. All Labour has to do to lose the next election is hint that they’re honestly considering putting the idea into practice. National comes out saying essentially, “Vote for us and you can keep smoking,” and a significant number of votes leap into their camp.

In other words, the plan is a good one, but there is no serious intention to end tobacco use in New Zealand. Policymakers, if they want it to happen, will have to keep fighting the tobacco industry until smokers are more like tweakers than drinkers if they want to initiate an “end-game” to the tobacco problem.

Interestingly, the first thing I thought when I read about Dr Wilson’s suggestion was, “What, only one flavour?”

14 Comments Radical Plans for Tobacco

  1. Anonymous

    Very interesting idea, and I did enjoy reading your Methcorp editorial too.

    I agree it’s purely theoretical. The government will not support anything that might harm their chances of re-election, and that’s where it becomes impossible to act in the interests of the people – because they must guard their own.

    Interestingly enough, you say people dismiss legalisation of P because they don’t want their government to condone it, and think that “legal means good, and thus that bad things should be illegal”. What I want to know is how they got around this problem when they legalised prostitution?! Seems like a similar issue.

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  2. Person Unknown

    You’re right, it is a similar issue. I think that probably more people consider crystal meth to be Bad than consider prostitution to be Bad. Another factor there is that with prostitution, it’s a difference between it being much safer (legal) and much more dangerous (illegal), whereas – with the exceptions of product quality and the occasional dangerous associate – crystal meth’s damaging effects occur regardless of legality.

    Also, prostitution law reform was partly bringing things into line. Prior to the recent reform, the law was heavily weighted against prostitutes (mostly women). It was legal to pay for sex, but not legal to offer sex for payment in a public place. A list of reasons for the reform is available from the NZ Prostitutes Collective site here: http://www.nzpc.org.nz/lawrefor.htm

    So I think in this case, it was a matter of pragmatics overcoming sentimental aversions to legalising something that is wrong to many people. Yes, that sets a kind of precedent for the same attitude being taken with crystal meth. Who knows?

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  3. Anonymous

    I don’t know how much safer prostitution is, now that it’s legal, and how much of that is political rhetoric. I do see your point, though.

    That link was interesting, and the sexism of the legislation disgusting. But they could simply have made both selling sex and buying it illegal for both men and women. Simple. I feel legalisation goes beyond pragmatics. But that’s a different topic.

    My opinion on them is the same, however – no government would do anything that might harm it’s position. Your multiple flavours are probably safe.

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  4. Person Unknown

    There’s also a question of just what right the state has to prevent people from doing things that harm only themselves. Of course, there are those who say that prostitution or recreational drugs “harm society”, but they’re often people who by “harm society” mean “make me feel a little uncomfortable that people are doing it.”

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  5. Will

    Your comment directly above starts to get to the heart of the matter. Why is it the government’s place to decide what we put in our bodies? It’s not. Drugs and prostitution are the ulimate victimless ‘crimes’, and should both be legal.

    ‘Oh, but what about all the people who go on p-rampages’. Well, as far as I’m aware, all these so-called p-rampages are because the p-addled individual needs to pay for their drug habit, and so steals to do so. If the black market was removed (by making it legal) then this problem would be reduced.

    What about all the people who commit crimes when drunk? Alcohol’s still legal, isn’t it?

    The only problem at the moment is the state-funded health system, which means that the public pays for the ‘risk’ an individual takes when they do drugs. There is, of course, and easy solution to this: privatise the health care system. But that would probably be getting off topic.

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  6. Anonymous

    That would definitely be off topic. And what is it with people privatising everything?! It’s not a solution, just because you want drugs to be legal, and don’t want to feel like your taxes are being “wasted” on healthcare.

    Prostitution a victimless crime? That seems like a very simplistic approach. You’re obviously not a prostitute.

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  7. Will

    Prostitution is absolutely a victimless crime. Who is the victim? The prostitute, who is voluntarily selling a product? Are you having a laugh? No one’s forcing her (or him) to do it.

    Yeah, I know, it’s off topic, but you challenged it, so I have to respond.

    My reasoning behind privatising the health system is two fold:

    1) Why should my money be taken from me by force to pay for other people’s healthcare?

    2) A bed in the private system is a fraction of the cost of the same bed in the public system. It’s more efficient. Why? Bureaucratic red tape, and because, if the public health care system needs more money, instead of becoming more efficient, they just increase taxes.

    Incidentally, I have never taken an ‘illegal’ drug in my life. But I respect that everyone has the right to do whatever they want with their own body.

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  8. Anonymous

    You’ll have to forgive me, I have absolutely no idea what you mean by becoming more “efficient”, but yes, the government is obviously out to get you and steal your money, instead of making healthcare more “efficient”, as they so obviously could. Wow.

    There is one reason why everyone tries to sell privatisation to the public: money.

    And prostitution? The “him” is superfluous, when we know that an overwhelming majority of prostitutes are women. You’re obviously not. And I can’t help but laugh scornfully at how easy it is to turn the world’s oldest and most shamed and shameful profession into a legitimate career choice. You’re most definitely not a prostitute. But I’m glad you find it so easy to justify.

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  9. Person Unknown

    Prostitution is no more or less a victimless crime than any other shitty job people only work because they have no other options. It’s perhaps a little shittier and pays a little better than the usual wage slavery. My problem with prostitution is not prostitution proper, but rather the fact that people take it up as a source of income who otherwise wouldn’t. ie., they are forced by economic circumstances into doing something they strongly dislike or perhaps even find repulsive.

    No doubt there are some prostitutes who enjoy their job and choose it over other similar-paying sources of income, but it would take a more just distribution of wealth in our society to separate those from the others. Until people are paid what they earn, rather than being paid the least possible the owners of capital can get away with, you can’t tell who’s in prostitution by choice and who’s forced into it by circumstance.

    That, too, is getting a little off-topic.

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  10. Anonymous

    1) Why should my money be taken from me by force to pay for other people’s healthcare?

    Healthcare is a necessity. Not everyone can afford healthcare. If people can’t get access to healthcare via legal means, they will resort to crime. Quite often, those who need healthcare aren’t income earners e.g. children and the elderly.

    A problem with some people on the right is that they will be against state funding for something purely because they can’t think of a reason for state funding. If other people think state funding for something is a good idea, they will just dismiss it as idiocy rather than try to find out why others think that way.

    A problem with some people on the left is that if they can think of a reason for the state to fund something they will be in favour of state funding, no matter how weak that reason is.

    2) A bed in the private system is a fraction of the cost of the same bed in the public system. It’s more efficient. Why? Bureaucratic red tape, and because, if the public health care system needs more money, instead of becoming more efficient, they just increase taxes.

    Private hospitals have a mandate to maximise profits. They will want people treated quickly and won’t want them spending much time there due to costs. They will however refuse to treat those who can’t afford to pay up. Also the cost cutting may make diagnostics less thorough. “Adverse events” (i.e. mishaps) tend to be under reported because it may threaten the bottom line.

    Public hospitals have a mandate to treat those who need it immediately followed by the next lot of people on the waiting list. A problem is that there is little incentive to reduce wasteful spending.

    Both types have their advantages. That is why I am favour of a mixed system similar to what is around at the moment.

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  11. Anonymous

    The second objection assumes that the illegality of crystal meth is the main thing stopping any number of non-tweakers starting up.Sounds like a reasonable assumption. Alcohol is legal and most people consume it. Tobacco is legal and many people consume it. Marijuana is illegal and I wouldn't be surprised if only a small minority of people consumed it. I believe that legalising marijuana would result in higher rates of consumption. Maybe not to the extent of alcohol and tobacco but still much greater than it is at the moment.If a vice has been legal in the past, prohibition would come with huge problems because many people would already be addicted. Prohibition only works when very few people were addicted to the substance before it becomes illegal.I don't agree with imprisoning or criminalising people for minor drug offenses. Fines seem like a better idea. Rehab also.

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  12. Anonymous

    I read your methcorp editorial. I don’t quite understand methcorp’s mandate. If it is to minimise consumption of P and is also obliged to produce and sell it, then wouldn’t it just set the price to a billion $ an ounce? If so, wouldn’t that make methcorp a redundant institution?

    Well, at least your other editorials were good. You were the first Craccum editor in my 6 years at U of A to write editorials that I thought were worth reading.

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  13. Person Unknown

    Thanks, I appreciate that.Setting the price at $1 billion would defeat its purpose. MethCorp's doing two things. One, it's removing the criminal element, undercutting the prices of those currently manufacturing and selling the product, and putting them out of (at least that particular) business. The availability and lower price would also remove the cause of much of the violence currently surrounding the drug – addicts needing money fast to buy overpriced product. By making black-market crystal meth umprofitable, it would also remove that phenomenon of which I've heard anecdotally: weed dealers upselling their clients to the more profitable P.Two, it's treating its clients as patients, making addiction treatment available free of charge and increasingly effective as profits are poured into research and training.

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  14. Rich

    It's way late to comment but someone might read this.The only reason why crystal meth is a "problem" in NZ is that other, better drugs are unavailable due to enforcement action. In countries where E is inexpensive, it's much more popular than meth. (On account of most people preferring "happy" to "psycho"). Unfortunately it uses ingredients that aren't generally available and thus need to be smuggled, sending the price up. So large groups of the population stick to widely available dope and speed, and even larger groups to even more widely available booze, tobacco and BZP. If the latter were banned, or made substantially more expensive, all that would happen that illegal drug use (and/or illegal production of booze/tobacco/BZP) would increase.

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