Taxing cigarettes

I don’t smoke, nor do I condone smoking. It’s a disgusting habit that I managed to completely quit  two years ago, and I don’t expect to ever start again. I also am not a big fan of taxing those that cannot otherwise seek meaningful treatments to quit smoking.

The Healthy Wisconsin Council, a council to address health care and other health issues, recently recommended increasing the state’s cigarette tax by $1 per pack to cover costs for increased health care costs, new health care programs, and anti-tobacco education.

Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) opposes this, stating his press release:

“While a huge tax increase in cigarettes may pay off in the short run, over time as fewer and fewer people smoke, those revenues will taper off but the programs they support will continue to increase in cost.”

The senator is correct to a degree. But I urge all of the legislators out there to consider the goal of the tax. Is it to increase revenues for a new program? Is the program truly related to helping smokers quit, or are there other motivations behind increasing revenues? Or is it really to “encourage” smokers to quit?

The statistics indicate that when cigarettes cost more, less people smoke. Additionally, those that do smoke add greater costs to the health care cost burden because of the complications that are related to continuous bodily damage. But the statistics do not show the powerfully addictive nature of quitting smoking. I’ve heard from others that they found it easier to quit heroin or alcohol than to quit smoking.

Four years ago, the state used money from a tobacco lawsuit to plug a hole in its budget deficit. The money was intended to help people quit smoking. It certainly was not a self-sustaining fund, but it was large enough to help many fund programs that could help smokers kick the habit. Now that the money is gone, we need to know if the increased cigarette taxes will be used only for these purposes.

I liken this to what happened in the City of London when it imposed a toll for vehicles to enter. At £5 per vehicle per day, the city hoped to increase revenue while also decreasing motor vehicle traffic. Because the public was really upset with the cost, the city ended up only seeing traffic decrease; the last I read, the city did not raise the revenues it expected.

I agree with Senator Ellis’ point on increasing taxes for the sake of starting a new program. It’s irresponsible, and there is plenty of evidence that shows why it doesn’t work as a long-term solution. If it is used as a way to cover increased health care costs because of the burden of smoking, then we could be sending the wrong message to the health care companies: we are willing to pay increased costs. I don’t agree with that either. If we are using the funding to help smokers quit, then we are forcing them to subsidize their own programs, and I’m willing to accept that. Again, legislators need to seriously consider the true motivation for these increases before making their final decisions.

Ellis Blasts Call for Cigarette Tax Hike

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article: Cigarette tax increase has support in Senate

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial: Taxing what kills us

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