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Outcast tax

Hitting smokers hard on the price of their habit may help fund healthcare for a while, but it's no long-term fix.

July 28, 2007

Cruella de vil is going on the patch. Congress wants to put images of diseases on cigarette packs that would make the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. squeamish. States are cracking down on where people can smoke, and one U.S. senator aims to all but stamp out tobacco use. With the nation apparently fighting a war on nicotine, it seems an odd time to look to cigarette taxes as a solution to our healthcare crisis, yet that's precisely what federal lawmakers are doing.

Smokers are about as popular in this country as terrorists and telemarketers, so there are few easier targets for legislators. Hence, the Senate plan to boost the State Children's Health Insurance Program calls for adding 61 cents to the existing 39-cent federal excise tax on a pack of smokes; the House plan would add 45 cents. The obvious problem with this idea is that taxes will discourage people from smoking, which will ultimately reduce the revenue taken in by the tax.

Meanwhile, a nationwide anti-smoking crusade that has been going on for at least a decade is gathering momentum. Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday announced it would ban depictions of smoking in its family films. Bipartisan legislation in Congress seeks to bring tobacco products under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, allowing the agency to put limits on their manufacture, marketing and sale. A provision of the same bill would replace the surgeon general's label on cigarette packs with warnings covering half the front and back, featuring full-color images of victims of smoking-related illnesses, such as cancer and gangrene. And Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R.-Wyo.) has introduced a bill imposing a cap-and-trade program on tobacco, slowly cutting the number of cigarettes sold annually until, in 20 years, less than 2% of the population is lighting up.

Cigarette taxes are a smart way to cut down on smoking, which shortens lives and burdens society with high health costs. But one does have to wonder whom we're going to tax once all these anti-tobacco initiatives prompt the last smoker to kick the habit. Perhaps a fat tax? Obese people burden the health system as much as smokers do, so a Twinkie tax may be on the horizon. Surely we could come up with a good way to tax lawyers.

Or, rather than sticking the bill to social outcasts for our short-term fixes, we could resign ourselves to the fact that our healthcare system isn't going to improve until everybody contributes.

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