In this final Time Tables, Rhymer Rigby casts a jaded eye back to the beginning of the century to see how the relative burden imposed by a pack of cigarettes and a pint of beer has changed.
It's all very well to say that we've never had it so good. Average income has easily outstripped inflation, but how this actually manifests itself in terms of the quality of life is questionable. After all, very few people go off shopping with 'The constituents of the Retail Price Index' written on their lists. In terms of feeling good - in the short term, anyway - it's far more interesting to look at how the cost of a couple of Britain's favourite vices have fared in relation to the average wage.
Tobacco, as most people know, was discovered by Christopher Columbus along with America and brought to this country by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Since its launch on an unsuspecting market it has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the populace, most famously being denounced by James I who, in 1616, implored his subjects not to 'imitate these beastly Indians, slaves to the Spaniards, refuse to the world and aliens from the holy covenant of God'. However, by late 19th century when it had adopted its most popular guise - the cigarette - few thought tobacco harmful and smoking was seen as a perfectly acceptable pastime.
After a relatively uneventful early start to the century, the relative price experienced sharp movements as war-induced inflation and subsequent deflation affected prices and wages. By the mid-1920s, however, all was back to normal. During the war, cigarettes were often issued free to the troops, but for the man in the street 1940 saw the first in a series of hefty hikes in duty which continued until 1948, when a pack of 20 peaked at 2.2% of the average weekly wage. Mindful perhaps, of the smoking vote, the Government then relented and the percentage of the average pay packet going up in smoke declined as salaries rose. A tax increase during the late 1960s was swiftly offset when the retail price agreement among manufacturers collapsed. Despite massive inflation, nominal prices rose little, and the relative cost of cheroots tumbled below pre-war levels.
This fall might well have continued were it not for the medical establishment confirming what many had long suspected - that the role tobacco played in cardiovascular health was not a beneficial one. Armed with this certainty, any cash-strapped chancellor knew he was on to a good thing and tobacco duty has risen for 18 of the last 20 years.
Beer and its alcoholic cohorts have been around since before recorded history and throughout much of this time have had their market prices distorted by tax. In this country records of a duty on ale began in the 17th century when the average pint attracted about one thirtieth of a penny in duty. For the following 260 years, except for a period from 1830 to 1880 when duty was abolished, the relative cost to the consumer of beer, like the stuff itself, remained resolutely flat. The first big upswing and subsequent fall, as with cigarettes, occurred during the second and third decades of the century.
Again, like tobacco, duties skyrocketed during the second world war, in this case quadrupling within a decade, though, as a domestically produced product, ale never attracted quite as heavy duty as cigarettes.
After the war, tax rises abated, incomes rose prodigiously and the relative cost of a pint declined accordingly. Since the 1970s, duty increases have ensured that the cost of beer has outstripped inflation and kept pace with incomes, these rises usually being sanctioned on the grounds that beer wasn't particularly good for you. However since recent medical evidence suggests that the reverse may be true, in moderation at least, it may be rather more difficult for the taxman of the future to justify increasing his gulp of the Great British Pint.
In terms of the dent which these products make in the pocket, a citizen of the late 20th century is no better off than his or her Victorian great-grandfather. A 20-a-day smoker, who also drank a couple of pints a day, would see around 11% of his pre-tax and circa 15% of his post-tax income go up in smoke and down in beer. But this is only half the story: the average Briton works less than two thirds of the hours he or she did in 1900. Roughly speaking a Victorian toiled 26 minutes for his packet of Woodbines and 13 for his pint of ale. His late 20th century counterpart works a mere 16 minutes for his Silk Cut and around eight for his beer (assuming he drinks bitter). As the working week no longer seems to be contracting we may say that the outlook for beer drinkers is reasonably bright, that for smokers far less so. By 2025, the 400th anniversary of James I's death, tobacco's 'black stinking fume' may have been banished to 'the bottomless pit' where he so firmly believed it belonged.