Smoking the poor

by | May 4, 2016 | Australia, consumption, demography, health, Inflation, social issues, tax

Australia’s 2016-17 budget announcement included “four annual 12.5 per cent increases in tobacco excise and excise equivalent customs duties”, claiming it will raise “$4.7bn over the next four years”.¹

This is unlikely to face much opposition. After all, taxing smoking aims to discourage the leading cause of preventable deaths in Australia².

But it’s interesting to see who will be most impacted by this, as smoking is a poor person’s game.

Based on 2009-10 household expenditure data³, increasing the cost of smoking will have a much larger impact on the poorest sectors of the community than anyone else.  More specifically, it will impact households receiving unemployment, disability, and carers payments – those already under the most amount of financial strain.

Smoking poor

Back in 2010, the poorest 20% of households were already spending four times as much of their weekly expenditure as the richest 20%.  Households whose main source of income was unemployment benefits spent three and half times the national average on tobacco, in relation to their total income.  Those whose main income was disability and carer payments spent three times the national average.

This is likely to be much more accentuated today as the 25% annual increase in tobacco excise since 2010 has almost doubled the price of cigarettes since that data was produced[4].

So how will this picture look in 4 years’ time, after 8 years of tobacco increases, when a packet of winnie blues cost $50?

Smoking is addictive. I suspect it’s easier to sell a house than quit smoking. Yet, when governments change legislation, making previous decisions less financially desirable, there’s usually talk of ‘grandfathering’ policies. That is to say that if we ever change capital gains policies we’ll ensure those who got in on the action prior to the changes don’t lose out.  Should similar considerations be made with smokers? Or is this more like the drug dealer who gives away the first few hits until you’re hooked, and then jacks up the prices, marginalising the destitute to a life of crime, imprisonment and social isolation?

I suspect it’s not all bad. Many will quit, thus improving their lives, and those of their loved ones. But for those unable to let go of nicotine’s vice, I suspect health issues will be only part of their worries.