The Australian government has increased the tax on tobacco and announced changes to labeling laws, which will mean that from 2012 cigarettes will need to be sold in plain packets without colors or brand logos.

Cigarette smoking is, after obesity, the second largest cause of preventable disease and premature death in Australia. Until fairly recently, it held the number one spot, and in many countries still does. The tax increase will add  $2.16 to a pack of 30 or about 7c a cigarette. This is not a huge amount but may well encourage some to stop burning their money.

However, the government does not expect huge reductions in consumption as it is counting on an extra AUD $5 billion in revenue over the next four years. A statement said it expected consumption to drop 6% and that 2 or 3% of smokers would quit based on the price hike. The revenue raised will be used to fund hospitals and $27.8 million will be spent on anti smoking programs. The move has, of course been welcomed by the public health brigade on the basis that it will save lives. No doubt they are already devising ways to use the extra “funding” that is so beloved of those in public health.

The issue of packaging is interesting. Youth workers are not convinced that teenagers will be put off experimenting with smoking if it is in plain wrap. Equally, it is unlikely manufacturers would invest so much in branding if it makes no difference. However how are we to explain teenagers using marihuana or other illicit drugs, which do not come in, branded packages? The tobacco industry will get little sympathy. However that does not mean that the move will have much effect or has much basis other than allowing the government to “look to be doing something”.

I have no issue with an increased tax on cigarettes. As I have written previously smoking is a choice people make and they can choose to stop if it gets too expensive. Governments see smokers as a soft target and a group who wont get much sympathy. It can be argued that by putting the tax money raised into hospitals it is a form of “user pays” albeit a clumsy one.

I have an issue with dishonesty. This move has nothing to do with health. It is a revenue move. This is patently obvious in that the projections are for a significant increase in revenue. If there were a serious drop off in smoking revenue would be static or decline. Governments can be expected to dress up any tax hike (justified or not) and use spin. But what excuse do the public health people have?

The public health crew does not want to bite the hand that feeds them so they peddle the government line that these moves are about health whereas in fact they are not. They also tend to see being “anti” the tobacco industry as somehow an achievement of itself. Nothing like having an enemy to make yourself look like a hero.

The bottom line is that some people may, of their own volition, choose to stop smoking as a result of the tax increase. The increase is a reasonable revenue move by a government searching for dollars to fund its promises.

Can we just be honest about it, please?