With the state's coffers showing signs of bottoming out, there is a natural inclination to consider piling on smokers again by increasing taxes on their habit. Never mind that the federal levy on cigarettes jumped 61.6 cents per pack in April 2009, taxing tobacco users who, as a group, number the poorest of our citizens. They remain a lucrative target by the more enlightened.
My own representative, the 25th Legislative District's Mary Still, has joined this bandwagon, pointing out that Missouri now has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation at 17 cents per pack. Echoing the arguments posed by most tobacco tax advocates, she uses budget estimates that smoking-related illnesses costs Missouri Medicaid $641 million in combined federal and state funds and calls for Missouri's smokers to do their part in covering the added health expense.
The popularly accepted notion that smoker's health costs strap the health care system can be countered by estimates from Action on Smoking and Health and University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter 2000. The former relates that a 30-year-old smoker's life expectancy is about 60 while the 30-year-old nonsmoker can look forward to living to 83.
The latter, the Wellness Letter, estimates that every cigarette smoked reduces life by 11 minutes; accordingly, each carton costs a day and a half and every year of smoking cuts the smoker's life span by nearly two months. These estimates and similar tests delineate the utter fallacy of attempting to assess the health care costs per smoker without considering also the obvious savings due to their significantly shorter life span.
Admittedly, these comparisons could be carried to the extreme, neither satisfying nor proving anything to those with preformed conclusions. And, I really don't have a dog in this fight as I am a nonsmoker, having kicked the habit in 1968. Moreover, my sympathy for those who use tobacco ranges somewhere between ambivalent and nonexistent — I embrace my grandmother's description of a cigarette as a "cylinder with fire at one end and a fool at the other."
However, my opposition to the "sin taxes" is simple and straightforward. I find no justification for the government to regulate, control or punish behavior either by taxing a particular segment of society or by taxing a legally produced and marketed product out of existence. Raising taxes to compensate for faulty financial management procedures is a poor way to run a railroad, but levying that penalty on some 20 percent of the people is beyond reprehensible.
As the percentage of those who smoke has diminished, the still addicted have attracted animosity to the extent that it has become increasingly difficult to find an area where they can light up. Here in Columbia, that at least 50 percent of restaurants were non smoking made no difference: The City Council opted to remove choice from customers and business alike. Smoking is banned.
The feeling of moral superiority among non- and reformed smokers offers a conveniently easy argument to raise revenue from the societal pariahs of the tobacco set. After all, is it not a fact that smoking is harmful/offensive to the user as well as to the public at large? Why is it not obvious that the anti-smoking crowd knows best and actively serves smokers' interests in punishing them and their pocketbooks by pricing tobacco products beyond their ability to pay?
Popular opinion to the contrary, smokers have the same rights bestowed upon all of us — to include that of self-destructive behavior. Government as well as privately owned establishments may restrict smoking on their premises, but that jurisdiction ends at the collective area so controlled. Taxation to control or punish behavior is inherently wrong. If the intent is to ban smoking, do it legally by legislative fiat.
Finally, if, as a last resort, additional revenue is required, seek a solution that affects everyone on an equal basis. Levy it on a staple that taxes everyone equally — fuel, bread, milk or eggs, thus avoiding unfairly burdening a minority that has no option save unconditional surrender.
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.