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?”