Don't make smokers pay to quit


Daily Telegraph headline: Taxes Up in SmokeLast week opinion was divided on public funding for smokers wanting to give up. Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced that the Federal Government would include nicotine patches in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). This would dramatically cut the price of the treatment from $160 to $5 each month.

Some thought that smokers should take responsibility for their habit and pay the full cost of giving up. Others argued that the government would save billions of dollars in health care costs.

Those who would deny smokers this substantial assistance miss the point of society, which presupposes that the strong will help the weak and everybody will be better off. 

We do not condemn people for decisions made in the past, especially when new understanding transforms a previously defensible course of action into a diabolical mistake. ‘It relaxes me’ becomes ‘It kills me’.

We take collective responsibility for society’s problems, which are often a consequence of past mistakes.

This principle is relevant to many areas of public policy. Many decades ago, farmers and agricultural corporations commited to water-intensive crops such as cotton and rice. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was profitable, and sustained many regional communities. 

But climate science eventually taught us that large-scale investment in rice and cotton has catastrophic consequences for our rivers. Current floods notwithstanding, it hastens desertification. When the government talks of buying back water allocations and assisting the communities whose economies depend upon these industries, we all pay. That’s the way it should be. If they don't receive assistance from taxpayers, they will struggle.

Bad personal decisions force many people into poverty. That’s where they stay until their problems are solved by constructive action at the public level. The Federal Government is to be congratulated on the nicotine patch study. But it must keep its resolve to introduce measures to combat gambling, in the face of objections from vested interests and the new state government in Victoria. There is a temptation to engage in political spin – to do nothing beyond the cosmetic – or to manage rather than solve a problem.

As St Vincent de Paul Society National CEO John Falzon says in a forthcoming essay for Eureka Street, our collective problems need to be resolved rather than managed, and it’s actually simpler that way. He quotes from Dorothy Day’s associate Peter Maurin, who urges those with responsibility to tackle the present for the sake of the future: ‘The future will be different if we make the present different.’

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: smoking, pharmaceutical benefits scheme, quit, society, farmers, irrigation, desertification



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Existing comments

Federal Health Minister Roxon is to be commended for her decision to make nicotine patches available under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. Of course we need to give others a helping hand. It's unconscionable to let those who still smoke cigarettes pay for assistance to break their deadly habit. After all, past governments have profited handsomely from tobacco taxes. Thanks for this article, editor.

Joyce | 13 December 2010  

As a nicotine addict who has tried many times to quit, I can only say it definitely helps to know that other people care - when they say they want me to stop because they want me around a bit longer. To know that the government actually cares enough about its citizens to (save on medical expenses and) do all it responsibly can for their mental and physical health, is a refreshing change from us all being considered just units in the economy and suckers in the market. This article equates leadership with responsibility, not just spin and "fooling the people". Thank you.

Phillip | 13 December 2010  

I am a pharmacist and treat many people every week struggling with nicotine addiction. Firstly Nicotine Replacement Therapy NRT costs less than the cigarettes it replaces. Secondly people who have put some money on the table have taken a stake in their quitting decision. I see this decision as only wasting taxpayers money for medicine. It will lead to smokers buying their NRT and then not using it because they haven't a stake in the process. NRT costs about $30 per week, the same as 2 packs of cigarettes and so I don't see the problem. I have also seen better quit rates when a smoker "commits" and buys a couple of weeks of NRT ahead. When someone offers them a cigarette they don't want to waste the money that they have spent on NRT. If they are on their last patch then they seem more likely to take the offered cigarette. The above are just observations from 10 years plus of supplying NRT and talking to my patients. If the comeback is that $30 is too much for the poor to shell out at once then maybe we need to have 1-2 days supply available.

Michael | 17 December 2010  

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