How dare they smoke?

Raising cigarette tax is easy, avoids backlash.

On Monday at midnight, smoking became more expensive. A pack of Camels now costs you NIS 22. A pack of Noblesse, Dubek’s classic Israeli smoke, will set you back NIS 14.50. The cigarette tax makes up nearly three-quarters of the total retail price after the latest hike of between NIS 1.50 to NIS 2 per pack. This is good news, for smokers and for the rest of us.
Increasing cigarette taxes is an international trend.
In New York City, for instance, as of July 1, a pack of cigarettes costs a colossal $10.80, the highest price in the US. Hawaii, New Mexico, South Carolina and Utah have also just raised cigarette taxes. In April, Australia did the same.
Raising the cigarette tax is easy and avoids the dangers of a major populist backlash. Smokers are a shrinking minority. In Israel, 22.8 percent smoked in 2009, compared to 24.2% in 2008 and 40% in 1970. In the US, the national average is a bit less than 20%.
More importantly, there is little sympathy for smokers. Nobody really accepts the argument that the smoker is hopelessly addicted to a perfectly legal substance. The fact is that the nasty habit can be kicked using economic forces: Studies have shown a clear correlation between cigarette tax hikes and a decrease in the number of smokers. The latest tax increases nationwide in the US are expected to spur more than 140,000 adults to quit smoking, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The Australian government estimated its larger cigarette excise would cut the number of smokers by 87,000.
Attorney Amos Hausner, who has spearheaded an anti-smoking campaign in Israel for several decades, says there is a direct correlation between tax rises and a drop in the number of smokers here over the years, especially among youngsters who have less money and are less attached to their habit.
Other methods work as well. Studies have shown that printing gruesome pictures of cancer-infested lungs, mouths and esophagi on cigarette packs deters, as do ad campaigns and limiting accessibility to vending machines. By the way, none of these approaches has been adopted by our political leaders.
The Treasury has consistently opposed earmarking revenues received from the cigarette tax for antismoking activities. More must be done to educate.
Quitting is tough but not impossible if properly encouraged.
And such encouragement is essential.
ACCORDING TO a study published in 2009 by Gary Ginsberg in the European Journal of Public Health, about 8,500 Israelis die every year from smoking.
Another 1,500 are killed by secondary smoke. Even if the number is closer to 3,800 a year – an estimate made by Manfred Green, head of the University of Haifa’s School for Public Health – this is still many times more than those killed in car accidents every year, and it’s a toll that’s much easier to prevent.
Laudable legislation banning smoking in public places may limit the exposure of innocent strangers to secondary smoke. But friends and relatives who share living spaces remain victims. Also, smokers cause traffic accidents, are absent from work more and retire earlier due to illnesses.
Smokers’ diseases are a burden on society. In 1998, Kupat Holim Clalit, a health fund that serves about half of the Israeli public, filed a NIS 7.6 billion damage suit against local cigarette manufacturers for causing cancer, heart disease and other smoke-related illnesses. Based on this lawsuit, which has yet to be heard by the courts, medical expenditures on smoking-related illnesses amount to NIS 2b. annually.
IN THE final analysis, however, money can never heal the loss incurred by death. As Jewish tradition teaches,
each person is an entire world unto him- or herself. By choosing to engage in life-shortening activity, smokers deprive their friends, loved ones and sometimes all of humanity of the unique contributions only they could have and should have made. How dare they? Though resorting to a total ban on cigarette sales would only give rise to a flourishing black market and criminal activity, smokers should be strongly encouraged to stop. A cigarette tax hike is one among many welcome ways of achieving this objective.