March 29, 2009
The federal government’s April Fool’s joke on smokers will be the largest increase ever in the tax on tobacco. As of Wednesday, the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes will go from 39 cents to $1.01. There will be comparable increases in the tax on other tobacco products. Not that they’re a cynical lot, but cigarette manufacturers, anticipating that this tax increase will have a negative impact on sales, raised prices a few weeks ago to make up for their expected losses. This is all for a good cause. The government’s object is to raise $33.5 billion over 4 1/2 years to finance an expansion of health insurance for children. Those who campaign to discourage smoking hope this tax increase, particularly in the midst of a recession, will inspire some people to reassess their priorities and give up the habit.
The connection between smoking and health insurance for children may seem obvious, but it is in fact selective. There are plenty of things that are potentially damaging to children’s health – carbon emissions and some fast food, for example – that the government could tax more heavily to finance the insurance program. Tobacco is the most convenient target, because the nation’s significant shift away from smoking has given smokers the aura of lepers; no one will come to their defense. This is hypocritical, because the same government that depends on tobacco as a safe source of revenue, the same government that makes manufacturers warn their customers that the product might be lethal, the same government that bars cigarette advertising from radio and television, in effect sanctions the sale and consumption of tobacco products by not prohibiting them by law. Smoking is a legal activity, but government would rather impose what amounts to a punitive tax on folks who smoke – which doesn’t include me – than make a serious effort to finance health insurance and other necessary programs by eliminating chronic waste in the federal budget.