Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on the cigarette tax

Roland Martin, a CNN Analyst (at least that is where I know him from. He is also an author and syndicated columnist. You can learn more from his website), recently wrote a column on CNN's website arguing that the cigarette tax is great. In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I am not a smoker. I will also add for the record that I do have family members who smoke; they tend to be thoughtful enough to go smoke outside. With that out of the way, let's go on.

I have to say that it is pretty hard to argue with a lot of Mr. Martin's logic. Smoking is unhealthy for you. This is widely known and documented (information from the CDC). Like Mr. Martin, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would do that to themselves. I am not as rabid as Mr. Martin in the sense that, whatever someone else does, is their business. But the health risks are very clear. Now, the point he raises about poor people and smoking is one worth of some thought.

He writes:

"Critics say the tax will disproportionately hurt poor people. Fine! Did we somehow forget that poor people already are likely to be in poorer health because they are living in areas where there are food deserts, and that means lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables?"

There is a point. If you are poor, what the heck are you doing spending five dollars (or more in some places) per pack buying cigarettes of all things? Mr. Martin is pointing out that the critics use the poor as the illustration of their objection: look how unfair this tax is, it will hurt the poor. Well, not quite. It pretty much gets anyone who buys cigarettes. If you need to feel sorry for anyone, feel sorry for the farmers who grow tobacco because in the very long term, they better be learning how to grow something else. I am not as sympathetic to the tobacco companies, which peddle a health hazard to make money. Martin writes on:

"Poor folks are likely to lack insurance, which means when they get sick, they will go to a city or county hospital, and taxpayers have to foot the bill. So their decision to buy cigarettes will probably hit us in the pocketbook later on."

A big problem is that health care in this country is dysfunctional, to put it mildly. Huge segments of the population lack access to it or the insurance that enables said access. Sure, in a pinch you go the emergency room. And if you are poor, the hospital pretty much eats the bill, so to speak. And before anyone out there says I have it for the poor, look at it from my point of view. If I go to the emergency room, I get socked with the full bill. Sure, my insurance may cover some of it, but I still would have to pay a big chunk because I am employed and the assumption is I should be able to afford it. Actually, I would not be able to afford it, and therein lies a problem. Unless you are dirt poor or dirt rich, health care is a major concern. So yes, I do tend to be sensitive to things like taxpayers picking up the tab for irresponsible people, and smoking is irresponsible, especially if you cannot afford the care when you get your cancer. I will go a bit further. If you are a millionaire with a lot of wealth, smoke away. After all, you can pay for the care. But if you are broke, you should be taking better care of your health, and that includes stop smoking. In an ideal world, people probably would not smoke at all, but this is not an ideal world.

Some people may say that targeting smoking is unfair. Why not tax alcohol? It is unhealthy too. Well, in some cases it can be unhealthy, but not in others. On the one hand, there is evidence showing that excessive drinking is bad for you (again, using the CDC). On the other, there is evidence that moderate alcohol consumption can be good for you (here and here for some information). Now I am not saying that we should give alcohol a free pass, so to speak, because it is not as bad as cigarettes. What I am saying is that the argument for just taxing alcohol to be fair is not that simple. Actually, if we read a little history, we find that before Prohibition, the U.S. did tax beer quite heavily and got a lot of income from it. It did not deter beer drinkers (see the book Ambitious Brew. My note on it here). I suppose we could tax alcohol a bit more and use it for better health services, like SCHIP, which is what the new cigarette tax is going to be used (assuming the politicians don't pocket the money after claiming they are using it for children). Contrary to what critics may say, a little tax on alcohol just might discourage a risky drinker or two. And by the way, don't even think about trying a prohibition again. We saw how that worked in the United States.

As I understand it, tobacco also has the disadvantage in that it can harm others. Secondhand smoke can be harmful. Alcohol does not generate "second hand" drunkenness, i.e. I am not getting tipsy because I stand next to a drinker, but my lungs may suffer if I stand next to a smoker. I will grant this may not be the best image, but this leads back to what Mr. Martin says about secondhand smoke. I am not about to stop drinking; yes, I do enjoy some alcoholic drinks in moderation. But it would be nice if people would stop smoking. Either that, or find some place where they can just smoke happily without exposing the rest of us to it.

Just a thought.


USpace said...

It's all so hopenchangey.
The governments imposing these tobacco SIN taxes are actually committing racist acts since most smokers are lower income, and many of them are minorities. Obama committed a racist act with this tax increase. Completely regressive. Why don't they tax cigs $1,000 a carton?

They don't want all people to quit, just enough to toot their horns to justify their tyranny. They will still be able to rely on all those taxes continually coming in from the hardcore addicts, which at the increasingly obscene rates will easily make up the taxes lost from the small percentage of quitters.

Politicians don't want people to stop smoking. If they did they would tax them $100 per pack. But this would just increase the black market even more, and the state would get no money.
absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
raise taxes on the poor

tax cigs 200 percent
hurt poor smokers the most

absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
create racist outcomes

raise some taxes on the poor
hurt minorities the most
All real freedom starts with freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech there can be no real freedom.
Philosophy of Liberty Cartoon

Angel, librarian and educator said...

USpace: Hmm. Well, one could argue the government is not necessarily interested in people totally quitting. But I would look at it in more economic terms: the farmers, the megacorporations that make the tobacco products, the retailers who sell it. When one looks at it, that is quite a big economic machine, and companies like Altria (what Philip Morris is now called, to separate from their non-tobacco products), like other large corporations, do have pretty big lobbyists. So, I would go more with that. And yes, thus they do get their taxes, as they did with beer in the past, prior to Prohibition (and people still drank, by the way).

The reason I am not quite ready to see the racist angle, and I am not saying there is an absence of racism in the nation, is that there are plenty of white poor people too. Places like East Texas can be a pretty good example. Not all poor people are Black or Hispanic or other minority. Sure, the increase will likely price some people out, but if it means they will quit smoking, and thus get better odds on their health, that may not be a bad thing.

And this may be another reason why the tax may not be a bad thing. Again, for me, looking at it locally, from the Tyler Morning Telegraph for March 31, with the headline of "Cigarette Tax Spikes: East Texans React":

"Dr. Heidi McKellar, an East Texas Medical Center radiation oncologist who holds anti-smoking programs in Tyler-area schools, applauded the new tax.

Ms. McKellar said she sees patients, whose tobacco usage has led to cancer, continue to spend $300 a month on their two-pack-a-day habit instead of spend half that amount on the medicines they desperately need."

I am sorry, but I simply cannot find a lot of sympathy for someone who spends 300 a month on a smoking habit and chooses not to take care of their health.

But you do bring an interesting point, the government is certainly doing a balancing act: how much to squeeze in taxes versus their interest in public health versus the economy.