Monday, April 13, 2009

Quit smoking? Or just quit smoking contraband?

A funny thing happened on the way to a smoke free Canada. Well, it’s not so funny really, particularly if you’re an adherent of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker. The cultists are not smiling these days. Instead, they’re whining and crying and wringing their hands about “contraband” tobacco. Again. Or, perhaps that should be “still”.

Several articles appeared last week about the rise in smuggling and sales of untaxed tobacco. It’s an issue that has been in the news more and more frequently as the problem of contraband tobacco continues to grow.

The anti-smoker cult is despondent because Canada’s smokers have failed to submit meekly to government imposed sanctions (euphemistically referred to as taxes). After all, the penalties were levied for the smokers own good. Smokers, according to the cultists, should be thankful for the blessing bestowed on them and either pay the punishing taxes or give up the wicked weed as demanded by their betters.

The stated purpose of tobacco taxation imposed by governments in Canada is to force smokers to quit. Ottawa, and provincial governments across the country, have hiked tobacco taxes to usurious levels, ostensibly to curb smoking (and raise revenue). In effect, the government demands smokers pay what amounts to legalized extortion or surrender their right to use a legal product.

But, legal tobacco, through taxation, has been priced out of reach of all but well off Canadians. For those at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, the ever increasing level of punitive taxation has created a de facto model of prohibition. Tobacco itself is still legal, but many people simply can’t afford to buy it legally. And, they’re unwilling to quit.

The effect is the same as if the government had introduced outright prohibition on tobacco and tobacco products. And, it has neither curbed smoking nor increased revenue, much to the chagrin of the anti-smoker cult. Instead, it has created a growing black market, making cigarettes cheaper for many consumers, especially young people. Rather than increasing revenue, the government has seen revenue decline. And, policing the problem has strained law enforcement budgets to the max.

A Halifax Herald article last week claimed a 1.6 billion dollar loss in government revenue due to contraband sales of untaxed tobacco.

But, by defining taxation as the foremost weapon in their unholy crusade against smokers, the cultists (and the politicians) ignored the lessons learned during the US Prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. If there’s a market for a product, someone will fill it, legally or otherwise.

And contrary to what you may read in the press, the trade in contraband tobacco was not created by Canada’s First Nations or tobacco consumers, but rather by this misguided public policy which provides the huge financial incentive to both the supplier and consumer of illegal tobacco products. Governments, at the insistence of their cronies in the anti-smoker cult, have created that market by raising tobacco taxes to a level that many smokers simply can’t afford, or refuse to pay.

Consider this; the government makes three times as much on a pack of smokes than the manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers combined. And still, the cult pressures government to raise taxes even further. They continue to ignore the adverse consequences of an ill-advised policy that is doing more harm than good.

Instead of forcing smokers to quit, the ever-increasing levels of tobacco taxation have forced smokers to modify their spending habits rather than their smoking habits. They have been forced to find alternative, cheaper sources of supply. And it’s a growing concern, not just in Canada, but worldwide. Knock-offs of popular brands are being manufactured in South America, China and Europe and are readily available at a fraction of the price of the real thing.

By raising taxes to such absurd levels, they have created a multi-billion dollar industry. They have fashioned an illicit trade in a legal product. At a time when a sagging economy has mandated governments around the world to engage in deficit financing, they insist on maintaining prohibitive levels of taxation and increasing the potential profit level for dealers in contraband.

But, the really scary part is that the government is either too stupid or too greedy to understand that high tobacco taxes and smoking bans have long since become counter-productive. Canadian smokers (like a growing number of smokers around the world) have begun to realize that they have become the targets of undemocratic, discriminatory government censure. And, with no voice in the legislative procedure, tax avoidance becomes their only means of fighting back.

Non-governmental groups can ignore the adverse consequences of a punitive taxation policy; government cannot.

Politicians should remember that five million Canadians continue to use tobacco products. For governments to expect them to pay through the nose for the dubious pleasure of being relegated to second class citizenship is nothing short of insane.

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