Cigarettes are designed to kill you painfully. How silly—they should be designed to kill you painlessly, preferably just as you retireby Julian Gough / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Governments everywhere face falling revenues, while their expenditure explodes and their unfunded pensions commitments threaten fiscal catastrophe. Some of the most innovative solutions to this dilemma are coming out of China. The authorities in Gong’an county recently ordered their civil servants and teachers to smoke 230,000 packs of the local brand of cigarettes each year. As local official Chen Nianzu pointed out, “The regulation will boost the local economy via the cigarette tax.” This kind of creative thinking makes China the envy of the world. But it is merely the beginning.
Cigarettes have always been a simple way to get the people to hand their money straight back to the government for more productive use. (Across Europe, roughly 75 per cent of the price of a packet of cigarettes is tax.) However, cigarettes have traditionally been thought of as food or entertainment products with a tax attached, when they are in fact taxes with a product attached; a cigarette is merely a tube that you suck on. Anything can be packed into that tube. Western governments adjust the tax to maximise revenue, when they should be adjusting the product.
But the west has problems carrying out such revolutionary programmes as its cigarette companies are in private hands. The Chinese government, however, is ideally placed to improve cigarette quality. The state-owned China National Tobacco Co is the largest manufacturer of tobacco products in the world. (It has an almost total monopoly in the People’s Republic—only 3 per cent of cigarette sales in China are of foreign brands.) They make, sell—and tax—1.7 trillion cigarettes a year. So China is free to take the best aspects of western cigarettes and build on them.
Of course you start with nicotine. Instant chemical addiction is vital to maintain a tax rate of over 75 per cent on a product which kills half its customers. Indeed, from a revenue enhancement perspective, the addictiveness is all you need. Private Chinese companies such as Ruyan have realised this, bringing out electric cigarettes. You inhale pure evaporated nicotine: no leaves, smoke, or death. But from a government perspective, it is a grave mistake to cut out tar and the hundreds of carcinogens in standard cigarettes. The roughly 30-year lag time between starting smoking and dying of it means smokers pay taxes all their life, then die—a huge saving in government pension provision. (Hence the FDA is banning the import of smokeless, non-carcinogenic electric cigarettes into the US.)
And thus the Chinese pensions problem is in hand: 70 per cent of Chinese men now smoke, and the state company has begun marketing to women. (Globally, this is also a popular method of pension control. The WHO reckon 100m have died of smoking worldwide to date, and it’s improving all the time.) But China could do better. As in the west, some Chinese smokers die too early—while still profitable to the state—and others live on after retirement, despite the appalling financial consequences.
One way of improving on this would be to replace the current unreliable cocktail of hundreds of carcinogens with a specially tailored cumulative poison, which would show no ill-effects until a lethal dose was reached, and which then dropped you like a shot duck, ideally on the evening of the day you retire. This would, in one stroke (so to speak) solve both the pensions crisis and the healthcare funding crisis that threaten Chinese prosperity. And it would be of great benefit to the smoker, who would be assured of excellent productive health to the very end.
Indeed, China could take an integrated, holistic approach and improve peoples’ lives on every level. By also adding vitamins, iron and serotonin reuptake inhibitors to cigarettes, they could put the health and happiness of all citizens on a sound chemical footing, preventing the unhappiness which caused so many deaths in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, or in Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region in 1962, the 1980s, 1990, and 1997, or in Tibet in 1950, 1956, 1959, the 1970s, 1989, and last year.
But burning dried leaves is an old-fashioned foundation on which to build prosperity and happiness in the third millennium. It may be better to employ next-generation technologies.
The Chinese government has already decided to put monitoring software—developed with the help of the People’s Liberation Army’s Information Engineering University—inside all Chinese PCs. It would be easy to do the same with smartphones. All Chinese mobiles could scan incoming texts for those congratulating you on your 65th birthday. Global positioning software could then allow funeral parlours to ring you to compete for your business. And at the end of the call, once you’d agreed a price, the phone could play the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers” by Tian Han, very carefully (as altering the music or lyrics is punishable by imprisonment):
Arise! All who refuse to be slaves! Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall! As the Chinese nation faces its greatest peril, All forcefully expend their last cries. Arise! Arise! Arise!
Of course, in the new China of consumer choice, you would be free to choose instead a few bars of “The East is Red” (which replaced the anthem during the cultural revolution while Tian Han was in prison, where he died).
Wherever there is a Communist Party, Hurrah, there the people are liberated! You might have time for a last cigarette. Then the phone would blow your head off.