Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Obama Cigarette Tax Proposal Would Make Menthol Ban Much Less Likely

If Congress enacts the President's proposal for an increased tax on cigarettes to fund pre-school education, it would make it much less likely that that the FDA promulgates a ban on menthol cigarettes.


Because a menthol ban would threaten to substantially decrease cigarette sales, thus depleting pre-school education funds. Overnight, Congress would be putting supporters of pre-school education into the ironic position of having to oppose a ban on menthol cigarettes or else face cuts to their programs. This is a poignant example of the kind of perverse effects that this tax proposal would have.

To summarize my reasons for opposing this proposal to fund pre-school education by increasing cigarette taxes: (1) it is a regressive tax that disproportionately hurts the poor; (2) it is unfair because the benefits do not accrue to those who bear the burden of paying the tax; (3) it is unacceptable because it makes children's early education dependent upon sustaining high levels of cigarette smoking; and (4) it removes any incentive for the federal government to substantially reduce cigarette consumption.

Despite these problems, the proposal is being widely supported by anti-smoking groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids which touts it as a "win-win-win" scheme.

The Rest of the Story

It is unfortunate that anti-smoking groups are incapable of anything other than knee-jerk support for any and all cigarette taxes. They have never met a cigarette tax increase that they didn't like, no matter who pays the tax, what the funds are used for, how regressive or unfair it is, how inappropriate the resulting fiscal dependence on smoking might be, and how sensible potential alternative funding sources, or alternative uses of the cigarette tax revenues might be.

Cigarette taxes should be used to compensate for the costs they impose on society. In other words, they should be used for smoking-related programs. For example, using cigarette tax revenues to fund expansion or improvement in treatment for smoking-related diseases makes sense from a tax policy perspective. It is fair, because the benefits accrue to precisely those who are paying the tax. It is sensible, because the money is being used to compensate for costs imposed specifically by smoking. It also avoids the problem of creating a dependence on continued smoking, because as smoking declines, the need for the revenue also declines, as there will be less smoking-related disease. To some extent, it is a self-regulating system.

In contrast, using the cigarette tax to fund pre-school education creates an unacceptable conundrum. If we reduce smoking, then we lose money that is needed to pay for children's education. The more people continue to smoke, the fewer children who will have access to early education programs. As smoking rates fall, there is no direct decline in the need for children's education.

I find it unfortunate that anti-smoking groups are so narrow-minded in their thinking that they do not seem capable of considering the broader implications of what they are supporting and the sensibleness of their proposal in light of available alternatives. It is as if these groups have blinders on which preclude them from seeing any issue or consideration other than smoking. They are blind to effects on the poor, fairness, and long-term implications, for example.

In my view, tobacco control was never intended to be a field all its own. It was intended to be a part of a broader public health perspective. Unfortunately, it is increasingly becoming separate from public health. It is becoming more and more narrow-minded.

It's time to take the blinders off. There's a whole world out there which we are not seeing.

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