Smoke Gets In Their Eyes
By Calvin Trillin
(TIME, June 2) -- Senators who last week defeated a federal cigarette tax that would have provided medical coverage for 10 million uninsured children made one particularly intriguing argument. They said the proposal would cause a reduction in smokers--some people, particularly 14-year-old people, would be priced out of the market--and would therefore be financially damaging to the states. With fewer smokers, states would lose revenue from the taxes they levy on cigarettes.
A government's imperative to collect revenue is often unconnected with morality. In the late 1970s, for instance, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission supported an Atlantic City casino ban on card counters, who were beating the house at blackjack, on the ground that if the casinos weren't profitable other casino companies would not seek licenses, thereby slowing the economic revival of Atlantic City and reducing the flow of state taxes. In other words, the state had a stake in seeing to it that its citizens were systematically relieved of their paychecks.
In opposing a cigarette tax, you could also argue that a reduction of smokers would cut revenues through reduced income-tax payments from tobacco farmers and the merchants who sell cigarettes (who also contribute state sales tax, of course, plus an occasional fine for selling cigarettes to minors), as well as the custodians who pick up all those cigarette butts and might otherwise have so little to pick up that they would end up on welfare.
Supporters of the proposal argued that states already lose so much money on the health costs for people made ill by cigarette smoking that a number of attorneys general are suing the tobacco companies to recover billions of dollars. If a new tax caused fewer people to become ill from smoking, states would presumably lose less money on such health costs.
If those cases come to trial, tobacco-industry lawyers could argue that although it might sound a bit callous to say so out loud, some of the 400,000 or so Americans who die before their time because of smoking would otherwise be a drain on the Medicare and Medicaid and welfare systems for the years they would have lived if smoking hadn't rendered them safely deceased.
Antismoking activists--at least the ones who never understood that dropping a bundle in Atlantic City was for the good of the state--might ask how Senators who are in broad public agreement that smoking should be discouraged could have voted, no matter what the financial impact, against a bill partly on the ground that it would result in discouraging people from smoking.
A number of Senators would respond that although they are sympathetic to what the sponsors of the measure, Senators Kennedy and Hatch, want to do, tacking the cigarette-tax proposal onto the bill approving the historic budget agreement reached between the White House and the Republican leadership might have derailed that agreement, which includes such worthy elements as President Clinton's programs that have as their goal sending every 18-year-old American to college.
To which one could point out that surveys show that the percentage of smokers among college graduates is half that of people who didn't finish high school. In other words, reaching the President's goals on education would mean a steep reduction in the number of Americans who smoke, and would therefore be financially damaging to the states.
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