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Smokers Cough UP

Many people expressed dismay when the NDP sanctioned-and proposed to profit from-casino gambling in Windsor, Ontario. Unfortunately, while this is fresh evidence that governments have little interest in individual and community well-being, there is reason to believe that governments have been guilty of far worse.

On February 11, 1994 Michele Landsberg wrote in The Toronto Star, "I was disgusted that the government would risk what experts calculate to be a potential 800,000 new smokers, including 175,000 teenagers, leading to 250,000 tobacco-related deaths." As well, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that one-third to one-half of smokers will die twenty years prematurely, because of related diseases.

These projections suggest why governments have been so reticent about legislative constraints upon the tobacco industry. Smoking offers benefits far in excess of sin tax revenues. Governments have not admitted how the public purse depends upon savings associated with smokers departing twenty years prematurely: especially with regard to Old Age Security and CPP payouts . We hear a great deal about health care costs associated with lung cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. The first unasked question? Is such care more publicly expensive than non-smoker conclusions twenty years later?

Let's do a few sums: 250,000 additional deaths because of cigarette tax removal, multiplied by 20 years (WHO's estimated average loss of life) represent five million person-years. Since these twenty years will be 'cut from the end', this means five million person-years of Old Age Security and CPP payments avoided. If we assume payments of $8000.00/annum, Canadian governments will save $40 billion because of the shortened lives of 1994's new smokers. This is a win-win situation. Given the latency of lung cancers, emphysema and heart disease, most smokers deliver a full working life. Granted, they suffer additional sick days, and there is the smoke break factor, but these are small costs compared to the benefits of their timely demise, more or less at the end of their productive years.

Nor does this $40 billion capture benefits accruing to private pension schemes, wherein payout levels, and the possibility of periodic inflation adjustments, reflect the abbreviated lives of smoking contributors.

Such benefits have been accruing to government treasuries and nonsmokers for decades. Although the percentage of Canadians smoking has dropped to 31 per cent from 45 per cent in the 1950's, this still represents 6.5 million individuals. We can reasonably anticipate that two million Canadians will die 20 years prematurely. The associated public saving is $320 billion.

These numbers suggest an explanation for the odour surrounding governments' capitulations to the tobacco industry, of which 1994's smuggler-driven tobacco tax repeal is only one example. A government concerned about preventing new smokers would have left tobacco taxes in place and engaged smugglers by offering a rebate to mature smokers. Adult smokers could submit receipts and have the tax returned quarterly, or along with income tax rebates.

The typical young wannabe smoker does not have access to reservation-bound tobacco shacks. We know this to be true because of the rising incidence of new smokers now that cheaper cigarettes are available.

In short, the federal and provincial governments' 1994 repealing of tobacco taxes is such extraordinary conduct that the question must be asked: Is the 20 year benefit so important that governments are willing to throw morality and prudence out the door? Is this what proactive legislation has come to mean?

What is therefore clearly uncertain is nonsmokers' and governments' claim upon the moral high ground. Governments have been excoriating contraband smokers for not paying their share of health care costs. In Ontario, Premier Bob Rae bemoaned lost provincial revenues when the federal government lowered taxes (to 35 cents per carton in Quebec and 75 cents per carton in Ontario), thereby forcing (?) lower tobacco taxes in Ontario. We have, however, yet to see a debate wherein all of smoking's fiscal ramifications are on the table. Is this because disclosure of the public benefit of premature deaths would mean no tobacco taxes could be justified at all? Of course, this lost revenue would mean still lower tobacco prices, still more new smokers...and $billions more Old Age Security and CPP payments avoided.

The tension legislators must be feeling!

Another way to assess the contribution smokers is to ask: What would Canada's deficit now be if millions of smokers had not had the courtesy to die prematurely all these decades? Have governments been less than forthcoming because they fear the truth would cause smokers to decline such public-spirited conduct? Butting out could become an important avenue for tax revolters! Reformed smokers would not only deny their governments immediate revenue, many might live to get their other tax contributions back.

In short, Canada's 1994 tobacco tax legislation had little to do with smuggling. In fact, smuggling may have been a welcome opportunity to covertly engage the deficit. The real question is: do governments-and the population of nonsmokers-want smokers to cease sacrificing themselves for the general good? Past practice and legislation surrounding this issue suggest that we do not.