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Editorial: Why pick on smokers?

When Stan Patterson asserted last week that smokers are “made the scapegoat for all of society’s problems,” he happened to be standing outside a local restaurant enjoying a cigarette. He was also indulging in a bit of hyperbole.
But Patterson was giving voice to what a lot of smokers across the state must be feeling these days ó that their particular “sin” is being targeted more than any other for more restriction and extra cash. On top of legislation in the General Assembly that could make it more challenging to light up in public, Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposed 2009-2010 budget would make it a good bit more expensive.
To help narrow a projected $3.4 billion budget gap next year, Perdue recommends increasing the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 35 cents to $1.35. If the Legislature approves that increase, it would be tacked on to an already approved 62-cent hike in the federal cigarette tax taking effect April 1.
North Carolina is not alone in considering an increase in the cigarette tax. Many states are pondering hikes of various amounts. They include neighbors South Carolina, which currently has the lowest tax in the country at 7 cents a pack, and Virginia, where legislation would allow local governments to add their own tax to the state’s 30 cents.
And, to be fair, Perdue’s budget also recommends increasing taxes on other tobacco products and hiking the tax on alcohol by 5 percent.
Other benefits
These increases are meant to generate much-needed revenue, though advocates and opponents argue to what extent they really will, or if they’ll just drive more people who live close to state lines across the border if they can get cheaper products.
There are other benefits besides padding the state’s coffers, however. Most public health advocates agree that increasing the price of cigarettes decreases the number of people smoking them.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says a $1-per-pack increase will be enough to keep nearly 90,000 kids from taking up smoking and eventually creating more than $2.1 billion in long-term health-care costs related to smoking. They obviously have a dog in this fight. But Frank J. Chaloupka, an economist and tobacco-tax expert at the the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the the Wall Street Journal recently that a 10 percent increase in the price of a pack drives down consumption by about 4 percent.
And even with fewer people smoking ó or those who do still light up smoking less ó Chaloupka told the Journal that tobacco-tax revenue has increased in nearly every state that imposed significant tax increases.
A Big Mac tax?
If convincing fewer young people to smoke were the only result, it might be enough to justify the tax hike. Surely even put-upon smokers wouldn’t object to making it harder for their kids to pick up the habit.
Still, while our elected officials are at it, why don’t they target other addictions? One has suggested doing just that. Utah Rep. Craig Frank proposed taxing caffeine, though he said he’s simply trying to make a point that government shouldn’t pick on certain segments of the population and its weaknesses.
But why not add a few cents at Starbucks? How about a surcharge on Sundrop? And while they’re at it, shouldn’t lawmakers take a look at a Big Mac tax?
None of that is likely to happen. The point is, why shouldn’t we pay more for the things we want to help fund the things we need, like education? North Carolina’s smokers shouldn’t bear the burden alone or be made social pariahs. And maybe a $2-a-pack tax increase ó the combined federal and proposed state total ó is too steep. But they’ve enjoyed one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation for a while now. That’s not really the story of a scapegoat.

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