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Have a smoke and a tax

October 09, 2006

TAXING SMALL GROUPS THAT ARE unpopular and lack political clout is generally unwise and even morally suspect, especially if the revenue to be raised will go to programs for which everyone should pay. Proposition 86 at first glance appears to fall into this category. Smokers are the targeted class, and healthcare is the needed program. The initiative would impose a $2.60-per-pack tax on cigarettes sold in California to pay for emergency medical care, expand health insurance for children and fund programs to discourage smoking.

But this tax is different from the standard ballot-box budgeting gambit. Leaving aside the issue of how the revenue it raises will be used, this tax will have a beneficial outcome: It will reduce smoking in California. Increases in cigarette taxes consistently produce decreases in consumption, and there is reason to believe that even the relatively meager 14% of California's population that still smokes will fall by another couple of percentage points after the price hike.

And reducing smoking is good for all Californians, not just for smokers. Secondhand smoke affects all of us, and our public health system continues to bear the weight of medical problems brought on by tobacco. People who choose to smoke should be free to do so; we don't want to ban cigarettes. But we do want to make it more difficult for young people to start smoking, and we do want to ensure that the effect of tobacco on our health system is mitigated.

A cigarette tax is necessarily the victim of its own success, because as sales decrease, so do the tax revenues. That's not a problem for the portion of the money devoted to offsetting the health costs of smoking, because it would no longer be needed. But revenue from Proposition 86 would extend to health programs unrelated or only tangentially related to tobacco use, and Californians must at some point -- sooner rather than later -- come to terms with our collective duty to pay.

We all should pay for emergency services for the uninsured. We all should pay to expand the Healthy Families program, which offers health insurance to children in families of limited means. Early childhood healthcare means huge savings to our publicly funded hospitals and clinics down the road, plus a more healthy and productive population.

But the economic and political fact of life is that the Legislature so far has proved unable to pay for kids, and a broad tax is today untenable. Decreases in smoking will extinguish the new Healthy Families dollars in about a decade, and we will be back to square one. But in that decade, hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would go uninsured will have access to healthcare.

That's a benefit that outweighs the usual qualms about ballot-box budgeting. Californians should vote yes on Proposition 86.

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