Greg Hunt* is trying to give up smoking.
“All the doctors say I need to give up smoking,” he says, “though science isn’t done by consensus, and I’ve come across some really interesting blog posts. Now, I’m not a doctor, but it’s pretty clear to me that there’s real uncertainty on the question of smoking causing lung cancer or heart disease or lung disease or any of the other things smoking is supposedly “bad” for. Smoking is clearly good for the lungs because it helps you cough up all that junk.”
At this point he pauses to cough up some brown phlegm into a tissue.
“Anyway. I do believe the doctors, and they say I should give up smoking completely. Though, obviously, smoking will be a big part of my lifestyle for a long time to come. I mean, if I stopped smoking immediately, it would cause me economic ruin.
“Eh?” I ask. “How’s that. You won’t be paying for cigarettes any more, and you’ll get healthier.”
“Ah, details.” He says. “Trust me. I have shares in tobacco. I’ll never be able to retire if I don’t prop up the entire industry.”
“You won’t be able to retire if you keep smoking. You’ll be dead,” I can’t stop myself from replying.
“Only two-thirds of smokers die young, and medical care is getting better and better, and, because I’ve had private health insurance for a long time, and shares in private health insurance, I’m much better off economically if I keep smoking, and you don’t look too hard at the numbers.”
“Don’t look too hard at the numbers?”
“So, because I absolutely believe what the doctors say…”
“That you should give up?”
“… Yes, that I should give up, I’m going to take their advice and cut down.”
“Yes. I’m setting a target for a 5% reduction in my cigarette consumption based on 2005 levels.”
“How much were you smoking in 2005?”
“Oh, about 50 cigarettes per day. It was only 35 before that, but it went up.”
I examined his face for signs of a joke, but he looked very serious.
“What? So you’re cutting down to 47 cigarettes a day?”
“Yes, I am. But I’m currently only smoking 35 cigarettes a day. Well. 40. But I’m allowed to count it as 35 because of a complex cigarette accounting rule where I can carry over previous cigarette reductions into this year.”
He managed to keep a straight face.
“But that means you can actually increase your smoking.”
“No. Well, yes. But it means I’ve hit my target.”
“But you’re increasing your smoking.”
“Well, frankly, that’s one of the oddest and strangest and I’ve got to say ... desperate arguments I’ve ever heard.”
There was still no sign that he wasn’t taking this seriously.
“So. I’ve hit my target,” he repeated with emphasis.
“But what about stopping smoking altogether?” I ask, a little confused now.
“I aim to cut future smoking by a 26% based on 2005 levels, by 2030. Which puts me way ahead in the middle of the pack of my smoking cessation group.”
“What? But your group are cutting smoking by 40% and upwards.”
“Yes, as I said I’m way ahead of them.”
“What? 26% compared to 40%”
“Yes. Because I’m measuring it per capita.”
“Eh? You’re not making any sense!” I was getting a bit frustrated now.
“Exactly. I’m hitting targets all over the place.”
“But your targets are rubbish. The doctors say you need to stop smoking.”
“Yes, and I’m doing everything the doctors say with my ambitious target of reducing my smoking by 26%, much much more than everyone else in my smoking group.”
I looked at him. He really seemed to believe this. He looked back at me, still straight-faced.
“So how will you achieve this tiny reduction?” I venture nervously.
“Well. I’ll achieve this ambitious reduction with a policy. You know how those so-called experts that I believe say we should tax cigarettes so it becomes expensive to buy them?”
“Yes. Definitely. There’s good evidence that it works.”
“Well. One man’s evidence is anther man’s anecdote…”
“No, it’s not!” I shouted
“… and that policy would lead to me buying fewer cigarettes, and lead to my economic ruin. No, I have a much better policy. The government will pay me for every cigarette I don’t smoke.”
“I’ll put in a bid in a reverse auction along with all the other smokers. And If I’m one of the winners, then I get money for each cigarette I don’t smoke.”
“That’s a crazy policy,” I say. “That’ll never work.”
“Oh, that’s what they all say,” he tells me. “But I know it will.”
“How do you know that?”
He waved his hands in the air and just said “Woooooooooooo! See. It’ll work.”
He wasn’t laughing.
“And if you don’t win the auction?”
“I might cut down anyway.”
“What? Well what use is that?” I ask
“It’ll make me stop smoking. Isn’t that what you want?”
“But… but.. what a complete waste of money!”
“Not at all. I get the money. Do you see? I get the money. How can that be a waste? You’re not very bright are you?”
“And what if you get the money and don’t give up?”
“Oh, that’s the really clever part. Listen to this. A man – or a woman, it doesn’t matter – comes round to my house and says ‘Don’t do that again!’”
“What? Is that it?”
“Yes. That’s a strong robust compliance mechanism.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I’m glad you agree with me.”
“But I didn’t.”
I took a long slow deep breath and counted to 10.
“So. Let me get this right. You’ve been told to stop smoking, but instead you can increase your smoking and get money for doing it.”
“No. I hit my targets. You’re concentrating too much on that increasing bit. I hit my targets. And I get money. It’s a perfect system, you see.”
“And what do your doctors say about it?”
“Oh, I don’t believe a word they say. I found this on Wikipedia”
He looked straight at me. Was that a smile playing around the corner of his mouth? Was that a knowing wink I saw? No. It wasn’t.
“Thank you for your time Mr Hunt,” I said as I left the room.
“The pleasure was all mine.”
I heard him start coughing again as the door closed behind me.
*Not Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment. A different, satirical, imaginary Greg Hunt