High tobacco taxes linked to crime spike

Another convenience store worker has been attacked in what has become an increasingly common occurrence. Criminals, lured by the sky-high value of cigarettes due to the government’s Tobacco Excise, are robbing local shops to get their hands on them. It has become “tobacco first then cash” according to Jeff Rogut, chief executive of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores. Tobacconists in Queensland have also expressed concerns for the safety of themselves and their stores, with one man’s shop being hit twice in a week by thieves targeting cigarettes. New Zealand has faced the same crisis, with aggravated robberies soaring by 87% between 2016 and 2017 and then-acting Prime Minister Winston Peters criticising high tobacco taxes in his country for much of that rise.

This hardly comes as a shock. History shows that aggressively taxing a product is a surefire way to create a black market and contribute to increased crime around that product. This is especially so for a price inelastic product like cigarettes, with smoking addiction ensuring that these regressive taxes take more money out of the pockets of lower and middle income earners who are statistically less likely to quit and more likely to smoke as relief from stress or depression.

Last year, we saw figures from the Australian government that revealed that our quit smoking rate stagnated between 2013 and 2016 after decades in freefall. This despite repeated hikes to tobacco excise above and beyond the norms for other developed nations, and punitive measures such as plain packaging. We now also know that the black market in illicit tobacco is worth over $15 billion dollars a year on our shores. It has become increasingly clear that making cigarettes more expensive can only work if addicted smokers have access to alternatives that minimise the harms they face.

E-cigarettes or vapes are such an alternative. Over 6 million Europeans had quit smoking by switching to vapes as of 2014 and that number is likely to have climbed further since then. Studies have also shown that vapes are at least 95% less harmful than smoking as they deliver nicotine that satiates the smoker’s cravings without the tar or carcinogens produced when a cigarette is lit. Unlike nicotine patches and gums, these products deliver nicotine efficiently and imitate the action of smoking, making it easier for smokers to transition out of their habit. It is no coincidence that countries which have legalised nicotine vaping, such as European Union nations and the United States, are experiencing a freefall in their smoking prevalence rates despite historically lagging behind Australia in this respect at one time and having less costly cigarette packs than those found here.

Recognising evidence from overseas and the need to minimise harm from smoking, New Zealand legalised nicotine vaping in early 2018. By contrast, Australia is yet to offer a positive response, and many jurisdictions have instead doubled down on the criminalisation of nicotine vaping with fines up to $45,000 to several years in prison. Meanwhile, industry groups like the AACS, as well as individual store owners, are pleading with the government not to raise the Tobacco Excise any further in the hope of lessening the threat posed by these robberies.

When a product is desired, people will find ways to acquire it unlawfully if it is prohibited to them. The reason why innocent store owners are being attacked, robbed and injured is because the price of cigarettes has been artificially inflated by taxation to the point where people will commit violent crime to get their hands on it.

You cannot tax an addiction out of existence. You can only force the addicted to take increasingly extreme actions so they can satisfy their cravings. Nicotine vaping is a proven tool for those wanting to quit smoking. Pragmatic and compassionate public health policy connotes that we should follow the international best practice of the UK government’s Public Health agency which urges doctors to recommend vaping as a safer alternative for patients who smoke. This will ensure that exorbitant tobacco taxes have their intended effect of discouraging smoking by lowering demand for the product instead of forcing addicted smokers unable to afford legal products to turn to the criminal underworld for their fix.

Eliot Metherell

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