When I browse the news, I routinely trip over numbers inserted into stories that just don’t seem to add up.
For example, knowing that the Calgary Stampede parade draws about a quarter-million spectators spread out over a parade route that’s several kilometres long. I’ve been to the parade, so I know how crowded it gets. From that, I’ve long suspected that the reported crowds of one million that supposedly line the route of the Toronto Gay Pride Parade — a route only several blocks long — are as mythical as the Loch Ness Monster.
Once again, I’m forced to reflect upon the curious incuriosity of much of the media in these matters.
The list of subjects where fanciful numbers get drawn like knives is as long as an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Take the supposed cost of tobacco use, for instance.
For my entire lifetime, we’ve been told that tobacco imposes huge costs on our health-care system. That’s why we tax it so heavily.
That’s also why many governments have initiated lawsuits against the tobacco industry, to the tune of billions of dollars, to recoup the supposed costs imposed by tobacco on our health-care system.
But there’s something not adding up here.
The last time you could buy a cigarette and not send more money to government than went towards growing, processing, marketing, distributing and retailing cigarettes combined, Neil Armstrong had yet to step on to the lunar surface.
Think about that. Then think about the fact that governments have use of that money for decades before a smoker might become a burden on the system, plus the simple glaring fact most smokers don’t die from smoking related illnesses.
The bottom line here is that the story has never really added up. The math has never added up. It really quit adding up when the anti-tobacco lobby routinely began to trot out the existence of the nanny state (socialized health care) to justify greater intrusions of the nanny state (ever more stringent anti-smoking laws) into our lives.
But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the problem with socialism is you always regulate yourself out of other people’s money.
A case in point is unfolding in Arizona. Years ago, Arizona began to earmark tobacco taxes for public health budgets. Money from tobacco sales and lawsuits against tobacco companies was used to provide low-cost public health insurance.
The problem is that anti-tobacco legislation is actually having an effect. Fewer people smoke, so there is considerably less tobacco revenue. Plus, anti-tobacco lawsuits have driven cigarette companies into the ditch. Profit margins have shrunk to a point that there is little left to tax at the corporate level, and investors are bailing out in droves, which is killing the stock prices.
Governments that took stock in lieu of cash from their lawsuits are now finding themselves holding worthless stock that they themselves made worthless. (Gee, have I ever mentioned the rampant stupidity that seems to routinely infest government?)
All over the U.S. and Canada, budgets are being pinched in part by the dwindling flow of tobacco tax money. Where we begin to understand the big lie about how costly tobacco was to the system is that the bulk of smoking’s burden on the health-care system is already dead and buried. Smokers have been in the minority since the 1970s, and the big influx of tobacco tax money was ahead of that curve.
The bottom line here is that either smoking is a big burden to the tax-supported health-care system or it ain’t. Governments and nanny state apologists can’t claim that smokers are a tax burden, and then claim that a lack of smokers is a new tax burden. That door can’t swing both ways.
You see, a great deal of the anti-tobacco rhetoric of the last 30 years has been less about the health affects of smoking than it was about extending the reach and scope of the nanny state. As smoking has been de-normalized to the extent that it has, the focus has shifted to other supposed public health hazards.
Thus we now have anti-obesity activists claiming that the existence of the nanny state justifies greater intrusion into our dietary habits. Trans-fats, corn sugar and salt are the new boogeymen of the nanny state.
The claim is that the nanny state exists, therefore we must expand the nanny state in order to protect the nanny state.
So, when does it stop? What does it take for you to give the nanny the old heave-ho? If you don’t, she’ll eat you out of house and home.
Bill Greenwood is a Red Deer-based freelance writer.