Sunday, April 02, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Government should butt out of health

First they banned it on aeroplanes, and I didn't speak out because I'd been afraid a cigarette smoker would set the plane alight.
Then they banned it in restaurants, and I didn't speak out because I hated cigarette smoke spoiling the aroma of my garlic steak.
Then they banned it in bars, pubs and clubs, and I sort-of spoke out because I thought the old diggers were entitled to a smoke at the RSA over a pint and a game of snooker.
Now they want to ban it at home and there is no one left to speak out for me.
With apologies to Pastor Martin Niemoller, this could be the cry of people who enjoy a cigarette in the privacy of their own abodes.
Dr George Thomson, a public health researcher at Otago University's Wellington School of Medicine, has stated he wants homes to be smoke-free.
"With the goal of making New Zealand's workplaces smoke-free now largely achieved, people's homes are one of the last frontiers in the battle to reduce secondhand smoke indoors," Dr Thomson said in a March 16 press release.
We're told that secondhand smoke kills hundreds of people every year, but I'm sceptical of the research. Do we have empirical evidence that these 400-plus New Zealanders would not have died if they had never inhaled the smoke produced by a cigarette smoker?
What research on smoking-related deaths has been done to investigate other respiratory risks which simultaneously could contribute to untimely mortality - asthma, rheumatic fever in childhood, poor housing conditions, bad diet, slothful lifestyle, proximity to highways, to say nothing of exactly how much secondhand smoke has been inhaled?
Pollution from car exhausts is so bad in central Auckland, apparently, that a casual walk down Queen St can seriously harm your lungs. If you must venture into this valley of death, take a deep breath, then sprint between K'Rd and Customs St.
When Labour was pushing through the latest smoke-free workplace legislation, it was pointed out that if the Government genuinely cared about ending tobacco-related illnesses, it would ban cigarettes outright. But then there would be the wee problem of $1.2 billion in "sin" taxes it takes from smokers.
The Maori Party at least is honest - it wants to make cigarettes illegal because Maori are over-represented in smoking-related statistics. Fat chance that will do any good - burglary, class A drugs, assault, manslaughter and murder are illegal but does that stop Maori being over-represented in crime statistics?
And if Dr Thomson gets his wish and smoking is banned at home, will fat food be far behind? Arguably, obesity and its associated health problems eat up more health dollars than smoking does, so why not a fat tax on those dreadful meals we adore - fish and chips, pies, burgers, fizzy drink, more pies, and an extra fries with sauce?
The trouble is, while we have a Government-funded health system, it's right and proper that the bureaucrats charged with accountability in health spending try to prevent diseases from occurring in the first place.
Linger one morning at a dairy near your school and see what kids buy for breakfast, lunch and play-lunch. Foods not only guaranteed to pile on the weight, but which will make them hyperactive, unable to concentrate, naughty, tired and sending their poor teachers up the wall.
Instead of changing their diet, kids are dosed up on taxpayer-funded drugs like Ritalin. Later in life, the obesity turns to diabetes and here-we-go-round-the-health-budget-blowout-bush again.
There's no doubt that smoking and junk food make people sick. Then taxpayers are forced to make them well again. So the Ministry of Health must have a preventative policy. Bureaucrats try to save money by banning, or curtailing through taxation and regulation, bad-for-you habits like smoking or junk food.
The absolute solution is to get the Government out of funding health altogether. Let everyone keep their own money and take out insurance to pay for their own drugs and operations.
This is the libertarian argument; hard to argue against if you want to retain the right to put whatever you like into your own body, and to hell with the consequences.
But hell will freeze over before every New Zealander accepts financial and moral responsibility for his or her own health.
It's hard enough getting parents to take charge of their own children's health - how difficult is it to butter and marmite slices of bread, slap them together, add a packet of raisins and an apple and tell your kids that's lunch? Harder, apparently, than giving them $5 as they leave the house and telling them to choose their own poison.
I feel sorry for fat people, and I feel sorry for smokers made into criminals by a law change banning smoking. But my compassion for their plight doesn't override my resentment at their unwillingness to change their behaviour when all taxpayers must shoulder the cost of the consequences.
It's enough to make you want to light up.


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