Premier Christy Clark has blocked Health Minister Mike de Jong’s idea of charging smokers higher MSP premiums to reflect the extra burden they put on B.C. health care system.
“I don’t support it,” the premier said Friday, two days after de Jong told Black Press he was “seriously looking” at the idea.
Clark said it’s a slippery slope to start charging higher MSP premiums based on people’s personal behaviour.
“People pay more taxes because they pay taxes on cigarettes,” Clark said.
She added that if the government needs to raise more revenue from smokers, it should raise taxes on tobacco.
B.C. is already getting more revenue from tobacco since July 2010 when the harmonized sales tax took effect, increasing the price by seven per cent because the provincial sales tax did not apply to tobacco here.
Reverting back to the GST/PST system would mean tobacco taxes go back down unless B.C. opts to raise its separate tax on tobacco.
De Jong raised the notion of an MSP surcharge on smokers in a panel discussion at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
He gave no details, calling it a concept under exploration.
“I think smokers would be upset to be singled out,” de Jong said. “But we want them to be upset because they are engaged in a behaviour that is costing the rest of society billions of dollars.
De Jong raised the issue as he outlined government plans to carve money out of existing health spending to fund new initiatives to prevent chronic illness and reduce long-term costs.
B.C. already spends nearly $100 million a year on health promotion and disease prevention.
Victoria’s latest move is to fully fund nicotine patches and other smoking cessation aids.
Smokers will no longer have the excuse of not being able to afford to pay for help to quit smoking, de Jong said, adding the $15 million required will come from other parts of the health budget.
More than 300 people signed up in the first hours as the new program launched Friday.
Smokers make up just 14 per cent of the B.C. population – the lowest rate in Canada – but de Jong said cutting that to 12 or 10 per cent would still save billions of dollars.
He said there’s no new money to fund disease prevention initiatives, so cash much come from other health spending, adding that may mean difficult decisions ahead.
B.C.’s health budget has climbed from $4.8 billion in 1990, when it made up 32 per cent of all government spending, to $16 billion now or 45 per cent.
“We keep plundering other budgets to feed an insatiable appetite in health care,” de Jong said. “We are going to have to live within our means in health care and actually shift the emphasis.”