There is wisdom in taxing cigarettes, soda
I love the people I work with at public radio. I really do. Nevertheless, when I step outside of our building and see a gaggle of smokers, my heart sinks. What’s wrong with these people? I have never met a smoker who wouldn’t acknowledge that smoking is really hazardous. Most, if not all of them, are addicted. Some have tried every potential way out. Some have succeeded, many have not. I wish I could say that these people are stupid but we all know better. Some of the very brightest people I know are smokers. Why do they smoke? Afraid of gaining weight or parental example or reducing tension, it really doesn’t matter — they all got sucked up. Some try patches or gum or acupuncture or hypnosis. I host a “Medical Monday” show — streamed at WAMC.org — every week at 2 p.m. and interview some of the best doctors around. Doctors may disagree about some things, but one thing they all agree on is that smoking kills. You can’t dispute the evidence. Epidemiologists can show you the statistics.
The other night my wife and I were in a bar in the Berkshires, and a man who we knew casually walked up to us and announced that he may have a recurrence lung cancer. He held his hand to his mouth, puffed on an imaginary cigarette and mumbled the word, “Smoker.” It is enough to make you cry.
As lives are lost, society pays out huge amounts of money to meet medical and work force costs. Everything from chemotherapy to lost worker hours comes into play. So we have tried something that does seem to work. We have resorted to taxing cigarettes to the point that the cost of a smoke makes people want to quit. To those who say that cigarette taxes are “regressive” and poor people are the ones who will suffer most, I say, “So what?” They will then have an even greater reason to stop smoking. If the choice comes down to paying for milk for the kids or smoking, let us hope that the right decision will be made. I have no doubt that it will. In fact, we know that taxing people has worked. The progression of people quitting is encouraging.
Now the state Legislature has agreed to raise the smoking tax even higher. According to The New York Times, a pack of premium cigarettes in the Big Apple will cost over 10 dollars. Just think of the money we could raise if we followed the same course by legalizing and taxing the hell out of marijuana. The state expects to generate $440 million dollars this year in cigarette taxes, including taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations. While that is not anywhere what is needed to close the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget gap, it is still a substantial amount of money.
All of this brings us to Governor Paterson’s proposal to tax sugared beverages. If you believe in the logic that has led to decreased cigarette consumption, then you’ll have to see the wisdom of using the state’s taxing authority to help prevent diabetes and heart disease. We know that sugary sodas have played a big part in the obesity epidemic. If David Paterson sticks to his guns and refuses to listen to Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch’s very bad (you can say “stupid”) plan to borrow money to close the budget gap, there will inevitably come that moment in the last minute budget negotiations when the politicians who took the soda industry money are ready to throw up their hands and say, “OK, OK, tax the soda.”
They are afraid to do that too early because they long ago sold out to the lobbyists on the issue and because when they ask their constituents if they want a tax on soda, they get a big fat “No!” Fact: people hate taxes. The state health commissioner, Dr. Daines, knows full well what’s good for us, and we should listen to him. Tax soda! We need to stop killing ourselves and if the government can help and raise money at the same time, I say, “Why not?”
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/21/10