Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 29, 2023

Want to guarantee your tax cut? Take up smoking

Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

With tax cuts to be funded by cigarette sales, this one simple trick could be the answer to all New Zealand’s problems.

In news to make smoke come out of your ears, mouth and nostrils, New Zealand’s government wants to make cigarettes great again. After joining together in political matrimony last Friday, the new coalition quickly announced that it would fund National’s promised tax cuts not with a foreign buyers tax, but by repealing recent amendments to the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Act 1990. Ciggies, darts, cancer sticks – call them what you will, but this government calls them progress.

It was a big day for nicotine fans, as well as for those of us under the apparent misapprehension that smoking is the leading cause of preventable morbidity, mortality and health inequalities in New Zealand. The smokefree amendments became law in 2022 with the intention of making smoking less accessible and attractive, by lowering the number of retail sites, reducing nicotine levels and introducing a steadily rising smoking age so that people born after January 2009 could never buy cigarettes. It would create a smoke free generation, and was applauded as world-first legislation that would improve the health and economic wellbeing of every New Zealander. 

Not on our watch, said New Zealand First and Act. The new government intends to set these amendments on fire by March 2024, because finance minister Nicola Willis says less people buying cigarettes will “significantly reduce revenue to the Crown”. Nobody wants that, especially when the Crown already intends to reduce revenue in the form of tax cuts. Fiscal holes are the worst holes of all, but luckily, I have a great idea. We can all do our bit to help the government fund their tax cuts, simply by taking up smoking. 

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour at Friday’s coalition announcement (Photo: Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

While I like to imagine the coalition government bonding over a celebratory durry, the repeal came as a shock to many. Health experts slammed it as a “completely backward step” that will cause vulnerable communities to suffer. The Health Coalition Authority called it “a major loss for public health and a huge win for the tobacco industry”, as well as an insult to tāngata whenua. Smoking causes 5,000 deaths in New Zealand every year, and Māori and Pasifika have disproportionately higher smoking rates and higher rates of death. 

But that’s the cost of a tax cut in 2023, and like Sandy from Grease when she put on those leather pants, maybe we just need to embrace the smoke. Who cares that years of anti-smoking legislation led to a successful decline in adult smoking rates from 33% in 1983 to 8% in 2022, having halved in the past decade alone? Why worry that New Zealanders living in the most deprived socioeconomic communities are 4.9 times more likely to smoke than those in the least deprived, or that the smokefree legislation would have saved the health system $1.3 billion over the next 20 years? Tax cuts! Get them into my lungs. 

In fact, after Friday’s inspiring announcement, I immediately took up the habit to help support the already financially troubled government. Through the smoky haze of my squeezed-middle boudoir, I’m sure I heard every child born after January 1, 2009 rejoicing, thrilled that the same coalition who put the climate change minister outside cabinet and demanded that public service departments communicate primarily in English, will also allow them to buy cigarettes one day. “You’ll always have my vote,” I heard them cry, primarily in English.

They must have been happy tears, and why not? If the average tax cut for a full-time minimum-wage earner is up to $20 per fortnight, then that taxpayer will only have to save for one month to afford a $38 pack of cigarettes, or six weeks if they also fancy a lovely box of matches to light them with. That cigarette purchase will then fund the tax cuts (higher income earners could get up to $250 a fortnight, and they’re less likely to smoke), which we can then use to buy more cigarettes, which then funds our tax cuts. See? It’s the circular economy at its finest. 

Cigarette butts
Staying at a dairy near you (Photo: Getty Images)

The thought of taking up smoking may bring on an anxious feeling in your puku – sorry, stomach – but the truth is that the more people smoke, the more money the government has to spend on things like caring for people with lung cancer. The government will be rolling in it while we’re rolling our own, and it will all be thanks to the tarry-lunged team of five million. Plus, nicotine provides an immediate sense of relaxation, which is exactly what we need during a cost of living crisis. 

With any luck, smoking will become cool again. You’ll walk into a coffee shop and everybody behind the counter, not really knowing you but knowing you’re a smoker, will erupt in spontaneous applause. People will put up “thank you for smoking” signs, and we’ll all sleep easier (or not – smoking negatively affects your sleep) knowing we saved the government the anguish of finding less fatal revenue streams. 

Don’t do it for yourself, do it for your country. Yes, thousands more people will die. Yes, our lives will be shorter and less healthy. But think of the money. The money! I can’t believe we didn’t think of this sooner. 

Keep going!