The applause meter for the federal government tripling the excise tax on a package of cigarettes is off the chart in many circles as its two-fold intent – funding children’s health care and slaying the evil tobacco dragon – is hard not to like. Smokers, or one in five Americans, are now social pariahs – ranking with big oil, SUV drivers, global warming skeptics, Wall Street Bankers, the wealthy 1 percent and former President Bush as resident malignancies by the enlightened majority.
I am not a smoker, having given up the noxious weed more than 40 years ago. I prefer a smoke-free atmosphere, detest littering by smokers, have little sympathy for addiction used as a crutch and consider it somewhat stupid to spend money to abuse one’s health. So, why do I find it necessary to defend a minority no one else seems to care about?
I choose to do so because, in spite of their minority status, annoying habits and disregard for their own personal health, they enjoy the same rights and privileges the Constitution avails to all. The full weight of government, abetted by a judgmental majority, should not be permitted to bully a segment of its citizens just because it can, the popularity of the action notwithstanding.
The notion of using the power of taxation to control or modify the behavior of a minority or to destroy a legitimate, revenue producing industry merely because "government knows best" should concern anyone who believes in the Constitution and individual freedoms. This is the epitome of arrogance in social engineering – majority acquiescence does not justify mob rule.
Citing funding for children’s health care as the primary justification is a poorly concealed effort to raise revenue on the backs of social lepers while simultaneously dealing a death knell to the tobacco industry. Nevermind that this tax will strike hardest at the poor – half of all smokers are low income and one half of those are officially “poor” — or that smugglers, counterfeiters and cash launderers will prosper as will organized crime and terrorist organizations. Do we consider targeting a minority unfairly and granting windfall profits to criminals as “collateral damage”?
I don’t question the good intentions underlying health and welfare issues but the road to you-know-where is often paved with those intentions as well as suffering their unintended consequences. Obviously, this magnum tax increase will adversely affect cigarette sales – reduced smoking will cause a concomitant reduction in tax revenues.
While tripling the excise tax will effectively raise revenue at the federal level, distressed cigarette sales will reduce the taxes collected by the states. According to the National Tax Foundation, 2008 receipts by state governments were 15.4 billion dollars – New York, Texas, California, Pennsylvania and Michigan each reaped in an excess of $1 billion. Decreased demand will also cut deeply into the revenue of the four Piedmont states and Georgia, which represent 87 percent of national tobacco production.
Another economic impact of the tobacco industry is the number of jobs it supports. Many southern counties depend on tobacco as a substantial share of income while the American Economics Group and the Tobacco Merchants Association have identified at least 1.8 million jobs as tobacco related. If one can look beyond the two polarizing differences – the utter unfairness of the tax as opposed to the benefits from a smoke free society – an economic recession is hardly a propitious time to add to the ranks of the unemployed or to cut billions from state revenues. Whatever happened to “It’s the economy, stupid”?
Finally, when it becomes apparent that “Big Tobacco” is down for the count, where do we find the funds to continue the cigarette tax support for children’s health care? Facing the death throes of the “goose that laid the golden egg,” does Congress do an about-face and initiate a “light up for the children” campaign to restore the source?
Or, more predictably, Congress, abetted by a cash-starved administration, might look elsewhere for “sin appropriate” tax levies. Look to such lucrative cash cows as cheeseburgers and other fast foods, red meats, and sweets – their demise long the goal of the food police. Adult beverages, gasoline, soft drinks, automobiles larger than lawn tractors, more than one child per family, barbecue grills, coal-fired energy and guns/ammunition have all acquired enemies among self-anointed judges of all that is bad.
And what is to deter amending identification of the "wealthy" from those earning $250,000 per year to say, $50 or even $40 thousand? Before dismissing these notions as impossible – the camel’s nose is already under the tent with the tripling of the cigarette tax – what is to keep the rest of the camel out?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.