Saturday, 21 January 2017

Death And Taxes

"Tis impossible to be sure of anything except Death and Taxes". So wrote Christopher Bullock in his play The Cobler of Preston (sic) first published/performed in London in 1716. It's a phrase that Daniel Defoe elaborated on shortly afterwards in his Political History of the Devil and which Benjamin Franklin made famous in 1789 when he wrote in a widely quoted letter that "...in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes."

Death and Taxes became such a resonant phrase that it has been used to name a poetry collection by Dorothy Parker, as the title of several novels (by David Dodge and Thomas Dewey among others) and even a Frank Miller comic.

Of course, in practice the list of things we can be certain and sure of in this world is an extensible one.

To death and taxes I'd straight away add the depressing certainty that there are never enough hours in a day/week/year/lifetime (delete as applicable) to accomplish the things we intend to do. That's true in my case at least and I'm sure it's quite a common frustration. Many years ago a work colleague of mine had a poster above her desk that read: "I have been placed on earth to achieve a number of things. At this rate I'm so far behind that I might never be allowed to die!"

I intended to write about the effects of smoking this week - from the perspective of the habit being a killer - as I've been working on a poem on that theme; but when I began to think beyond the health issues to some of the financial implications that lie behind the continued use of tobacco, it didn't take much analysis or research to see that death and taxes are very much interwoven in the fabric of a global industry that is fabled to owe its existence to Francis Drake's adventures into South America in the late 16th century. Drake it was who introduced Sir Walter Raleigh to the habit and Raleigh in turn persuaded Queen Elizabeth to take up and endorse smoking. There is still a brand of tobacco named after Sir Walter.

"And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git" (Lennon/McCartney)
It was claimed in those na├»ve faraway times that tobacco had valuable medicinal properties and that smoking might be good for you!

Over the next four centuries, the smoking of tobacco in pipes and cigarettes became an almost universal custom regardless of class or gender. More people smoked than did not and there was little understanding of the negative health implications of smoking; hence there was very little concern.

It was only in the 20th century with advances in medical research that some of the health implications of the habit became apparent, starting with the link between smoking and lung disease. The industry took steps to limit the effect of toxins by introducing filter-tipped cigarettes but even then the spin from manufacturers was on improving the pleasure of the experience rather than conceding that smoking was inherently detrimental to health.

As research became more targeted and the medical evidence began to stack up, governments were under pressure from health experts to advise smokers to cut down. They typically chose to address the ethical issue by introducing or increasing the tax on tobacco sales. Shortly after World War II the British government slapped a massive 43% increase in duty on cigarettes and sales fell by 14%. This getting of large revenues from taxing tobacco has always struck me as an ambiguous position at best - and this from someone who smoked for a few years in my early twenties. (I blamed it on the nature of the job - a classroom teacher in a large London comprehensive school. The staffroom was like a fume-cupboard at break and lunch times, swathed in a permanent pall of cigarette smoke.)

As the evidence mounted that smoking increased the risks of pulmonary and vascular disease, that it was a major trigger for the development of cancers, so pressure grew to curb its use and its impact. The TV advertising of tobacco products was banned over 40 years ago as such commercials were thought to make the habit 'sexy' and could influence children and teenagers in particular. In the last 30 years, the impact of 'passive smoking' has been recognised and acted upon. Gradually smoking in the workplace became confined to designated areas, then banned altogether and latterly the same has been true of all public transport systems and enclosed public spaces.

Most recently, legislation has been introduced to force a standardised form of packaging on cigarette manufacturers. Tobacco products are now uniformly branded with the imposition of a series of garish graphic images and messages warning the consumer of the health risks associated with the habit, designed to encourage smokers to quit.


The price of a packet of twenty cigarettes is apparently nearly £10 nowadays. (I can remember when ten Park Drive cost the equivalent of 5p.) So the cost has risen markedly in recent years compared to other consumer items. What has also risen markedly is the cost to the NHS of treating smoking-related illness. One-fifth of all cancers are smoking related and then there are all the other cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases directly attributable to smoking tobacco. The financial impact is thought to run into hundreds of millions of pounds a year, never mind the suffering it causes to individuals and their loved ones. Of that £10 per pack, 70% is tax going into the exchequer; a nice little earner. Death and taxes - I wonder how much of that tobacco revenue finds its way into the health budget.

And so to the poem. I know that many years ago (I guess in the first half of the 20th century) packets of cigarettes used to contain picture cards on a theme - famous sportsmen, vehicles, breeds of dog et cetera as an added inducement for people to stick to a particular brand and try and collect a complete set of footballers, sports cars, hounds or whatever the set comprised. The recent introduction of this generic graphic packaging highlighting the various unpleasant effects of long-term smoking gave me an idea for an ironic twist on the concept. I hope you don't find it facetious or offensive. Of course it is meant to upset, for the intent is a serious one.

The Whole Smoking Set
A different graphic image
adorns every packet.
Ten smoking-related conditions,
ten nails for your coffin,
which one is for you?

Prematurely grey and wrinkled skin?
Gum disease and a toothless grin?
Vascular deterioration, the loss of a limb?
Maybe a premature or malformed baby?
Bronchial disorder is a permanent wheeze
not to mention tumours of the throat and tongue,
lung cancer and cardiac disease.

You may insist it's your right to choose,
that it's all a racket and you accept the risk.

Go on then,
collect the whole smoking set.
Roll up! Strike up!
You might be lighting your way
to a slow and painful death -
but it's one for which we all have to pay!

Thanks for reading. Stay healthy, S;-)
Reactions:

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Point taken.

Your poem should be read to children in schools.
Might stop a few of them smoking and teach then excellent grammar.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking (a smoker).

Anonymous said...

A fifth of all cancers smoking-related? Don't believe it. Sounds like FAKE NEWS!

Steve Rowland said...

Dear Anon - steady on. Not fake news at all, but official medical stats. Apparently at least 19% of all cancers are smoking related (compared to 3% obesity related and 2% alcohol related). That doesn't even encompass the non-cancerous illnesses resulting from heavy smoking.

Richard P said...

I think that the state is a big winner on smoking. Firstly the taxes on consumption, then the premature deaths lead to a lower cost of pensions. While the cost of smoking related diseases is undoubtedly substantial the costs of dealing with otherwise dead smokers' health and whatever they eventually do die from - possible after very expensive geriatric care - may well be more so. The choices may not be sensible but dumping them with all these costs is unfair.

Anonymous said...

May I just say that "lighting your way to a slow and painful death" is a very clever phrase? Allusion (I think?) and metaphor(?) all rolled into one resonant image.