Rudd the Terminator


The TerminatorOpposition leader Tony Abbott and executives from Big Tobacco appear to be alone in their opposition to the Federal Government's draconian measures to cut smoking. 

Last week Prime Minister Kevin Rudd imposed an immediate 25 per cent tax increase on tobacco products and signalled his intention to require plain paper packaging by 2012. 

Abbott stressed that he is opposed to smoking, but questioned the Prime Minister's motives, claiming that Rudd is making a panicked 'tax grab' to pay for his addiction to spending.

While his reasoning suggests opposition for opposition's sake, Abbott is right to ask questions. However it's not so much the tax grab that is a worry, but the shift towards regressive taxation to fund the health system. In other words, increasing the cost of cigarettes hurts the poor more than the rich. If James Packer still smokes, it does not matter to him whether he has to pay $13 or $20 for a packet of cigarettes. But it makes a big difference to many other Australians. 

The regressiveness of tobacco tax is compounded by the reality that smoking is much more prevalent among those from lower socio-economic and disadvantaged Australians. Health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett says that while the 'white collar' smoking rate is just 13 per cent, the Indigenous figure is 50 per cent, and the rate for those with schizophrenia is 90 per cent. 

Such figures are quoted whenever tobacco tax hikes are threatened because welfare advocates know that many Australians with a small discretionary income will give priority to cigarettes over food and clothing for themselves and their families. Such is the nature of addictive substances, and it only demonstrates that some form of draconian action against tobacco is necessary. 

However Rudd is acting with the callous efficiency of The Terminator when he really needs to find a more equitable incentive to give up smoking. Not only does he appear committed to unfair regressive taxation, but there is a lack of empathy towards those who will suffer most from this particular form of tough love. 

He may not be a smoker himself, but he makes no attempt to encourage smokers from lower socio-economic groups to feel that he is one with them. In the past he has demonstrated empathy in some of his prepared speeches, for example the allusion in the health debate to his upbringing in a family of nurses. Instead his rhetoric here was combative, and it was as if smokers were as much the enemy as Big Tobacco. 

'Cigarettes kill people. Therefore the Government makes no apology whatsoever for what it's doing … This will be the most hardline regime for cigarette packaging anywhere in the world for which we make no apology whatsoever.'

The action on smoking is clearly part of a strategy of taking an easy option to get runs on the board before this year's election following a series of spectacular failures and backflips. But the punishing manner in which he is executing his plan could cause it to backfire, and leave him offside with the 'battlers' whose quality of life is noticeably diminished by the regressive tobacco tax slug.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Kevin Rudd, smoking, cigarette, tax, terminator, plain packaging



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Existing comments

With the two headings today, ES is beginning to sound like Tony Abbott - nothing that Kevin Rudd does is right.

I feel sorry for all those poor people who have a gun put to their heads every day to make them smoke. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
Frank | 03 May 2010

Pity the Krudd Labour Mob don't do the same thing with Alcohol and Heroin etc.
All that lovely Tax Revenue, Hypocrites!

Gill | 03 May 2010

With the two headings today, ES is beginning to sound like Tony Abbott - nothing that Kevin Rudd does is right.

I feel sorry for all those poor people who have a gun put to their heads every day to make them smoke. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
Frank | 03 May 2010

Indeed the poor are slugged more (relatively) by an increase in taxes on tobacco products.

Your editorial makes comparisons with individual wealthy people.

Those individuals also have better access to health care (and advice).
They may even have more ‘friends’ prepared to give up an organ for their welfare.

The tax is another incentive to those who can least deal with the consequences of smoking to give up.
Good on you Kevin!
Tom | 03 May 2010

Diminishing quality of life for the battlers this is silliest article I have read in Eureka Street. Anything that makes smoking more difficult improves quality of life.
james kane | 03 May 2010

Yes, I agree with the other respondents. ES seems always to be crying poor mouth about the disadvantaged and how the government is to blame etc etc. Yet the Jays don't mind having such extravagant schools as Riverview, Xavier, St Al's,St Ignatius !!! with fees that can be afforded only by the legal and medical profession as well as a few shady characters !!!
philip | 03 May 2010

Thanks Michael for raising the issue of health policy and social justice as the real issue here. I for one feel like crying every time I see someone smoking as I know the health consequences. While the Rudd tobacco tax will lead some people to quit the real issue is to develop health and wellness policies for the marginalized and poor. Helping them live more meaningful lifestyles can point to social changes that would benefit us all.
Roger | 03 May 2010

Nothing like having a ciggy and cup of coffee on the front verandah. When will they start taxing all of the obese people, the diabetics, the alcoholics ??? Maybe a big fat FAT tax is next?
Greg | 03 May 2010

Give it a break Michael. We live in a community of disparate peoples. Nobody forces anyone to smoke [or do drugs of any sort for that matter]There is enouogh government money already being provided for disincentive and rehabilitation schemes for the 'disadvantaged,' as you call them. Like many of your readers I say - Whatever happened to personal responsibility? You sound like a smoker yourself!
Mick | 03 May 2010

Nice work, Michael. This is the best article I have read on ES so far this year and shows just how cigarettes are more than just a tool for the more morally superior members of society to beat their social inferiors with.

Tobacco is a drug; it is now a very expensive addiction not an out of date 'personal choice' fashion item from the last century; and it is still used by the most disadvantaged in our society just to cope with everyday life. This tax is nothing but a cruel way to exploit drug addiction that hits those least able to afford it the most as I'm sure the government must know.

Filthy habit. Nobody loves a smoker it seems although the occasional cigar is quite acceptable in polite society I believe. But there are no subsidies for expensive nicotine replacement therapies so I don't think the health of smokers is really a government priority. And smokers can forget the organic alternatives. I believe that the penalties for growing tobacco in your own back yard are harsher than for growing cannabis. Your article deserves to be given a wider readership, Michael.
Nathan Socci | 03 May 2010

What rubbish! I believe that the same rules should apply to all such harmful substances & if it discriminates so be it! Whatever it takes to get the message across (even while raising revenue) is acceptable in the case of this filthy habit & proven killer!
DENISE MIEL | 03 May 2010

Michael is correct - taxes on tobacco and alcohol are regressive and do fall more heavily upon the poor, as does the price-enhancing effect on of the criminalisation of the illegal drugs. Does Michael therefor argue for the decriminalisation of illegal drugs so that their price will fall? And if not, and what basis does he make the distinction?

And what about regressive taxes on 'good things', like excise on petrol, and service charges for water, gas, electricity, and telephones (and GST for that matter), all of which fall most heavily on Michael's 'battlers'?

And finally, what about the withholding of access to inexpensive and effective means of contraception, the burden of which also falls heaviest upon the poor, and especially upon poor women?

Now don't I remember something about splinters and logs in one's eyes...?
Ginger Meggs | 03 May 2010

Stopping smoking is the most important health available to the community. Price rises are the most effective method of achieving it. Therefore we must find other methods for social justice.
Geoffrey Long | 05 May 2010

As I am a practicing Catholic, so too am I a practicing non-smoker...not yet perfect. I have tried many times and ways and luckily now believe I have finally quit smoking.

It is an addiction and is one of the hardest to give up. Unfortunately, it is a legal drug.

I believe all the money from cigarette taxes should be used to send smokers to one week's detox and 3 months rehabilitation, all expenses paid plus living expenses like paid maternity leave, etc at home while away 'quitting'. Also, if in paid employment the 3 months should not come out of leave entitlements. I have advocated this for a number of years (while trying to give up smoking).

I agree with Michael Mullins, this is a very harsh, regressive tax. And it is assured to bring income to the government because smoking is an addiction for most smokers! I'd be happier if the government just made cigarettes illegal and bought out the Australian and Australian arms of tobacco companies, followed up with support to smokers as they go through withdrawals.
Mary | 07 May 2010

My first hand experience with low-socio economic family; cigarettes do take priority over children's meals on the table! Husband and wife both smoke and have no intention of giving it up. They drink moderate amounts of alcohol on the weekend and they have no intention of giving it up either. This anti-smoking tax is a "killer"!!!
Lynette | 07 May 2010

i totally agree with michael mullins, and feel it's an issue that should be taken up by church AND welfare groups - the anti smoking lobby should really asses its social implications instead of having a simplistic medical/scientific approach. (i am not a smoker nor ever have been)
barbara overbury | 07 May 2010

The G.S.T. too is a regressive tax - it hits smokers and non-smokers alike. The Packers, say, pay as much for their household cleaning materials as pensioners do. Is this tenable?
Joyce Parkes | 07 May 2010

Just a tad cynical Michael and maybe even a bit near the mark for some backroom political strategists BUT perhaps you haven't cared for as many people as I have with the horrors of end stage lung and tongue cancer who are heavy smokers. I suspect then you would agree that here the end justifies the means.
David Allbrook | 07 May 2010

I am horrified by the article. Research after research shows that increasing the pric of cigarettes is the most effective way of stopping or reducing smoking. Yes, it is a terrible addiction but the government does fund programmes & pharmaceuticals that do help.

Chronic ill health affects the poor more than the rich & we need to do all we can to reduce smoking, a huge contributor to their ill health. I get several phone calls a day from someone who is certainly poor & has had a most disadvantaged life but I am happy she is trying so desperately now to reduce her tobacco consumption as previously nothing has really motivated her & she already has significant smoking related health problems. Yes, by all means tax alcohol more but don't reduce the cost of cigarettes
Rosemary West | 07 May 2010


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