Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cigarettes and alcohol

Spent yesterday afternoon here in Honfleur stocking up on cider to take back to England after hearing that the Chancellor has stuck a 10 per cent tax rise on it. I guess Labour have written off the West Country vote at the next election, as well as the vote of 18-year-old first-timers whose idea of a fun night out is knocking back Diamond White behind the bus station.

The lamentable exchange rate means that petrol in Britain looks cheap even after a 3p tax rise compared with what it costs here in France. A litre of unleaded here is about 1.40 euros, which was only 95p a year or two ago but is now more or less £1.40 give or take.

Yet, the sharp rise in petrol in Britain from £1.10 a litre about six months ago to £1.20 now and upwards has not attracted the anger it should. Strange to think that ten years ago there were protests and petrol shortages after the refineries went on strike because petrol in the UK had gone past 80p a litre. Now it is 50 per cent more expensive (has any other commodity gone up by 50 per cent in ten years?) and people shrug it off.

My biggest annoyance with yesterday's Budget, though, is the decision to put the tax on cigarettes up by only 1 per cent - and a capped increase of 2 per cent a year from 2011-2014. This fairly gentle rise seems out of kilter with the Government's war on smokers. Surely it isn't because they don't wish to upset working-class voters?

I don't smoke myself but bear no ill will towards smokers and have often got annoyed by the measures brought in by the Government to clamp down on those who do like a puff. Banned from smoking while they have a drink, to the detriment of rural pubs, there are now proposals to ban people from smoking while driving and other impositions could be on the way (in Australia smokers are banned from receiving state aid for IVF, for instance).

Yet despite this clear message that smoking is wrong, the Government does not have the courage to hit smokers where it really hurts: in the wallet. Why not take advantage of their addiction and add 5 per cent tax on. Heck, why not make it 10 per cent? On a packet of 20 ciggies, a 10 per cent tax rise would be another 60p on the price and smokers would still pay it.

Smokers cost the NHS £5 billion a year, according to a survey last year. It is only fair that they should pay for that. And in return for their generous contribution to state coffers - what Sir Humphrey Appleby memorably described as "voluntarily laying down their lives for their friends" - these "national benefactors" should be given the freedom to puff wherever they choose.

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