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 — 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

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2 Comments on “There is wisdom in taxing cigarettes, soda”

  1. Jim Bintz Says:

    I am not a smoker so I haven’t kept track of the price increases affecting the tobacco habit — addiction, if you prefer. However, for some time now, at least in New York State, the price of a pack of cigarettes has exceeded the cost of a paperback novel. I will grant you that some of these works in mass market editions aren’t worth even a discounted retail price. But even bad fiction has to be better than self-inflicted toxicity. Reading will become economically advantageous!

  2. Checko Miller Says:

    I’m glad to see your column about the tobacco tax increase include several important points others neglect to mention- such as “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 in to play.”

    Here are some huge dollar amounts to support your point. According to the NYS DOH, the annual tax cost (we all pay) in NY is $6.3 billion, estimated to cost over $800 per household. THAT’S REAL MONEY!
    A further point: While all NYers pay that bill, the tobacco tax is only paid by those who consume tobacco.

    It is also worth mentioning that although the total annual tobacco tax revenue the state takes in will be between $1-2 billion, it is far less than the $6.3 billion it pays out to treat tobacco use diseases. The tax is not a profit for the state.

    That is why it is essential that the state continue funding a strong Tobacco Control Program (just cut another $5 million for the 2010-2011 year) if we are ever to really reduce this (preventable) health care burden (near 70% of this year’s budget deficit). There needs to be a true public message about tobacco to counter the industry’s ad campaign of deceit and what much of the media often overlooks.

    People complain that NY is a “Nanny state” trying to control people’s “freedom of choice.” Excuse me, but if NY is a Nanny state it is more because the state is left to nurse and treat the diseases tobacco users get . . . and to watch as 25,5000 NYers die each year from smoking. (and hello smokers, addiction is not a freedom)

    Another point the media misses is this increase in cost will prevent thousands of kids from starting to use tobacco by making it unaffordable. There is research-based evidence to prove this is one of the most effective methods. Hey adults, do you care about kids’ well being?

    NY productivity losses due to tobacco use amounts to another $6 billion. So the total is over $12 billion! (accord to Tobacco Free Kids)

    I also appreciate that your column includes support for the sugar sweetened beverage tax. The industry ads with sad mothers complaining about raising their “grocery bill” and hard to “feed their families”- EXCUSE ME again- if people think sugar water products feed their families, we really need this tax to educate parents. Tax payers should also know that NYS DOH estimates that treating obesity diseases costs, in tax dollars, over $700 per household per year. Again- that’s real money, which most NYers are unaware of and the media often neglects to tell.

    I understand that the tobacco and beverage tax impact low income people due to the higher rates of their consumption (tobacco and sugar foods having been cheaper than healthier options). But if they stop buying these products, they’ll save money and their health. They are also those most likely to need government paid health care.

    Although reducing tobacco use and sugar drink consumption may not be the concern of those who make healthier choices, everyone pays the health care bill in their tax bill. That’s why the “majority” of NYers need to have their awareness raised, when they only think Albany is “raising taxes.” WAMC and you help get that message across.

    Citizens who only “buy” the industry message, will never “profit” from the truth.

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