By Grace Scolyer
Dear Greg Hunt MP,
Stop taking money from my cousin.
When I think of the people who should be paying the most tax proportional to their income, I think of the big earners, with their multiple properties and multiple cars, their children in private schools, whose assistants make reservations at fancy restaurants for them. But I’m not writing to you about tax cuts for large and small businesses and the adjustments made to tax brackets. I’m writing to you about my cousin.
My cousin Anthony is a gorgeous thirty-three-year-old man who loves the NBA, magic cards, playing guitar, and painting. In high school he was social, popular, loved acting and playing sports, and was a prefect. Since the age of eighteen though, he has been battling severe schizophrenia.
Anthony is unable to support himself financially. He has struggled to keep a job. He struggles to make his government income last the fortnight. It is through the support of his family that he is able to survive, and often, survive is all he can do.
Survive, that is, and smoke.
Anthony smokes a pack a day, and has done for many years. When he smokes, he is focused, mindful, yet between puffs, he is lost in his internal whirlwind of chaotic thoughts and voices. He takes another puff; he is back, and the cycle continues. It calms him; he remembers to breathe.
My family often refer to smoking as a part of his treatment. As a medical student myself, who is fully aware of the risks associated with smoking, it seems almost paradoxical to call it therapeutic, but it is hard to deny. His medication changes, as do his moods, as do the volume and rhythm of the voices that control him. But this never changes: he will always find himself on his balcony holding a cigarette to his lips.
He has tried to stop countless times, because he cannot afford a pack a day. He spends half his pension on tobacco. But there is no hope in him stopping, not in the foreseeable future. It is undeniable though that the biggest impact smoking has on his life, aside from the positives, is financial.
Mr Hunt, this is not a health promotion issue. I care about rates of lung, throat, mouth and bladder cancers. I care about COPD and asthma and heart disease. But I also don’t think this tactic is working. If it were, with the taxation of cigarettes rising 12.5% every year, we would not be seeing the first increase in tobacco use in decades. If this were an effective health promotion measure, Australia would not have the smoking rates it does. If this were an effective health promotion approach, those facing financial hardship would have significantly lower rates of smoking than the rest of the population.
This is a financial issue. My question is how the government can justify benefiting from the most vulnerable members of our society. Because that is who is impacted by tobacco tax, and it benefits no one – except you. With tobacco tax rising at the rate it is, the financially disadvantaged are taxed more heavily, proportional to their income, than the richest people in the country. And that might sit alright with you, Mr Hunt, but I can see the impact it is having on people, and it is not alright with me.
I would like my cousin to stop smoking Mr Hunt. I would like us to find a way to make that happen together. In the meantime, I would like his life to be just a little bit easier. And I can think of one easy way to make that happen.