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The Tentacle


June 28, 2002

Raising Tobacco Taxes Again Is a Good, Conservative Idea

Ronald W. Wolf

"Health Care For All" is an effort of the Maryland Citizen's Health Initiative. Their goal is affordable health care for all Marylanders, and numerous unions, civic groups, and churches have endorsed their plan.

The Maryland Citizen's Health Initiative has lobbied in Annapolis for fair prescription costs for seniors and better health coverage for children in low-income families and pregnant women. They also have a larger, three-pronged plan they want the state legislature to adopt.

The first is ensuring CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield remains a non-profit insurer and adopts a more "community-oriented" board. CareFirst has been lobbying to become - or be sold - to a for-profit firm.

The second calls for the state to negotiate with drug manufacturers for lower prescription prices for seniors and others without prescription drug insurance. Those advertisements on television about seniors taking the bus to Canada are no joke. Canada and most other western countries have nationalized health care that limits costs on health care, including prescription drugs. The United States is one of the few countries in the world where health care is largely administered on a for-profit basis.

The third plank of the Maryland Citizen's Health Initiative is adding another 36 cents to the price of a pack of cigarettes, and it's a good idea conservatives should support.

Raising taxes always brings out opposition. Some people don't like taxes - any taxes. Others claim that people will just drive across state lines to get cheaper smokes. A third argument against raising taxes on tobacco goes, "If you raise taxes on cigarettes too high then people will stop smoking, and where will that leave you?"

It will leave us far healthier.

None of the arguments against raising tobacco taxes work. If you don't want to pay the taxes on tobacco, don't use it. People rarely drive across state lines to buy tobacco; one study showed that the majority of smokers purchased their cigarettes from the most convenient source: convenience stores, gas stations, liquor or drug stores and supermarkets. If taxes on tobacco are raised so high that people stop buying, then that's the best solution of all.

High tobacco taxes are a health initiative, not a tax initiative. It isn't known how high you can tax tobacco products before tax revenue actually begins to go down as a result of the product being too expensive.

Apparently, it's very high.

However, as prices go up, some people do stop using tobacco. Teens in particular are price sensitive. With a pack of Marlboros more than four dollars a pack, it's easy to see why teens might stop buying cigarettes. Because almost all adults, who are regular smokers, begin smoking as teens, there is great logic in trying to get teens into their twenties before they become regular smokers. The 30-cent per pack tax increase in Maryland in 1999 is estimated to have reduced smoking among 10th graders by 30 percent, not to mention raising an additional $80 million in tax revenue.

If there is any question, a mountain of documents supports the association of tobacco use with higher rates of disease, many of them fatal, all of them ugly. The American Cancer Society, the Veterans Administration, and the National Institutes of Health spent several decades, starting in the 1950s, tracking the health of millions of individuals they enrolled in their studies. The results are indisputable. Tobacco use causes disease, and discouraging its use is smart.

Any efforts that force smokers to start later or smoke less translate to better health. And it's the efforts of organizations like Maryland Citizen's Health Initiative that will bring these benefits. A large and aggressive tobacco-control program reduces deaths from heart and other diseases. High tobacco taxes should be part of any health care initiative, and the Maryland Citizen's Health Initiative is right to make it part of their agenda.

Health care costs are always spread across the entire pool of insured individuals. An individual who spends years undergoing surgery and radiation or chemotherapy treatments as a result of tobacco use and runs up bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars does not pay for it. You pay for it with higher health care premiums.

Employers pay too, since they often pay a huge chunk of their employees' health care. Jacking the tobacco tax way up will eventually reduce employer's health care expenses and help them to be more profitable.

High tobacco taxes are an idea conservatives need to get behind.



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