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An Australian Senator Has Just Thanked Smokers For Their $8 Billion 'Staggering Generosity' To The Economy

Photo by Scott Barbour / Getty Images.

Australian Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm has just delivered a speech which stands up for the one rights of one in five citizens who choose to smoke.

His speech titled, Thank you For Smoking, he praises nicotine fiends for their $8 billion a year contribution to the economy and says he did the maths: Last year smokers cost the health care system $320 million and another $150 million in bushfire control.

Senator David Leyonhjelm just thanked Australia’s smokers.

Leyonhjelm argues despite the “generosity” of smokers they’re branded as filthy yet their money is still taken willingly and spent on “sillier” things than cigarettes and booze.

He even channelled South Park’s Mr Mackey when he told parliament we can agree that “drugs are bad, mmmkay”, and it is probably also fair to say that “regressive taxes are bad, mmmkay”.

Here’s his speech.

I’d like to address my comments to the roughly 18% of the Australian population that engages in a despised activity.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank-you for smoking.

Australian smokers contribute significantly to the pile of money that – as I noted in this place recently – other people then spend.

As you well know there are many such big spenders in this parliament, as are many of the people who malign you.

They don’t like your habit, but in my view they have an even filthier habit: spending your money – and other people’s money – on things that are often even sillier than spending too much on cigarettes and booze.

Your generosity to the nation’s treasury is truly staggering. The government collects around 8 billion dollars in tobacco excise each year. That’s a lot of cash.

Last year, smokers imposed $318.4 million in net costs on Australia’s healthcare system. Depending on rainfall, smokers also cost the taxpayer about $150 million a year in bushfire control.

If you do even basic arithmetic, these figures disclose that you wonderful, generous smokers pay 17 times as much as you cost.

Of course, I’m aware that the justification for making you pay so much for your smoking is borne of a desire to help you quit and to improve your health. However, every now and again the mask slips.

Tony Abbott – in one of those “unguarded moments” while in Opposition – made the following comment in relation to the then Government’s tax hikes:

“It would only be raising $5 billion dollars or so if people are to continue to smoke, so let’s not listen to this palaver about health. This is all about revenue, it’s all about tax, it’s all about a government that can’t control its spending – that’s why it hits you in the hip pocket.”

Those who would tell us how to live, back this flagrant theft, not because they’re prone to agree with Tony Abbott, but because they are troubled by the worrying thought that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.

Those havers of good times, smokers of Australia, are you.

This is why, having banished cigarette advertising from everything from television to cinema to motorsport and even the internet, and ended the commercial cultivation of tobacco in Australia, the health mandarins have moved on to banning smoking in prisons and insane asylums.

That’s right, people in cages who have lost most or all of their rights are denied even this small thing. Yes, prison is meant to be punishment. But the widespread tendency to see prisons as comfortable budget hotels bespeaks a fundamental failure to grasp just what gaol means. Rehabilitation means not committing further crime, not being trained to live according to somebody else’s values.

The same people worry and worry about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking rates, with about half of Australia’s indigenous population being daily smokers. Aborigines on income management, like prisoners, are also denied this small consolation. Racial paternalism lives on.

Because the revenues versus costs figure is so lopsided, those who would tell you how to live have tried to add “social costs” to the healthcare costs I discussed earlier. “Social costs” take in things like smokers’ spending on tobacco, and the lost productivity represented by smokers’ earlier mortality. These, allegedly, represent income foregone.

By that logic, deciding to work part time to increase your leisure time is a social cost, as is going on holiday.

Arguments like that suggest to me the anti-smoking lobby is running out of ideas.

But when powerful, well-funded lobby groups run out of ideas and arguments, unfortunately they don’t fold up their lobbying tents and head home. They keep lobbying, and we’ve now reached the point where, thanks to their efforts, the government is about to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, handing all the lovely tax money it extorts from you over to organised crime.

Australia is set to have the most expensive ciggies in the world once Abbott’s extraordinary 12.5% a year tobacco tax hikes – taken over from Labor – kick in. Already, in 2012, the WHO found that a pack of cigarettes cost $US14.35 in Australia. Only Norway had higher prices, at $US14.49.

Following the unprecedented 25% tobacco excise increase in April 2010, Treasury’s post implementation review observed that:

“The availability of illicit tobacco products (products on which taxes have been avoided) undermines the effectiveness of taxation in many countries in reducing affordability to prevent uptake and promote quitting, particularly among low income groups.”

This should come as no surprise. Here’s a little basic maths: if you spend $5,000 a year on tobacco, it’s a bigger proportion of your income if you earn $30,000 per annum than if you earn $100,000 per annum. In the trade, that’s what’s known as a “regressive tax”.

And if – along with South Park’s Mr Mackey – we can agree that “drugs are bad, mmmkay”, it’s probably also fair to say that “regressive taxes are bad, mmmkay.”

Calling regressive taxes ‘sin taxes’ doesn’t hide the scale of the problem. Smokers are typically poor, which makes this vast tax-take all the more perverse. It means, for example, that social planners who want to redistribute money from the rich to the poor need to increase both welfare payments and income tax rates to achieve their goals.

When the 25% excise increase was imposed, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service noticed an increase in seizures of illicit tobacco. In 2013, it rose to 183 tonnes, representing forgone customs duties of $150 million. Remember, that’s the annual cost of putting out bushfires due to cigarettes. And it’s also entirely to be expected: tobacco can’t even be commercially grown in Australia.

Smokers of Australia, despite your generosity, I need to apologise on behalf of the short-sighted pickers of your pockets in this place. Maybe they haven’t studied any history, because if they did, they would learn that the regime controlling cigarettes is no longer one of ‘legalise, regulate, and tax.’

Instead, it now resembles two other regimes, regimes that were and are catastrophic failures. I’m thinking here of Prohibition and the War on Drugs.

In a world where cannabis is in the process of legalisation – because illegality simply doesn’t work – and where Prohibition enriched Al Capone but beggared the US Government, I think people like me need to do better by you, the smokers of Australia.

I am put in mind of a constituent’s comment, made to me last week. He pointed out that he valued the e-cigarettes now available because they meant he didn’t smoke during the day, and also meant he didn’t inflict his smoke or smell on others.

However, he said he was still going to sit on his balcony of an evening, drink a glass of wine, and smoke a cigarette.

He was going to continue to do this because he enjoys smoking.

And that, Mr President, is his choice.

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