Friday, July 15, 2005

IN MY VIEW: Cigarette Taxes to Balance State Budgets are Not Only Unfair, They are Harmful for Tobacco Control

While I have already argued (post 1; post 2; post 3) that cigarette taxes designed to balance state budgets are discriminatory, regressive, and unfair because they force smokers to pay for services that the state should otherwise be providing, I here will argue that such taxes are detrimental to tobacco control. There are two major reasons for this:

First, these taxes create a fiscal dependence for the state on cigarette consumption. By relying on cigarette consumption to fund critical state budget items or to balance state budgets, these taxes make the state dependent on cigarette consumption. This policy removes any incentive for state lawmakers to take any action that may decrease cigarette consumption. For public health groups to support or applaud such initiatives is like driving a stake through the heart of the tobacco control movement in those states, because it effectively eliminates any chances for effective tobacco control policy or programs at the state level. In fact, I can't think of anything worse one could do to hinder state tobacco control efforts.

Second, these taxes stave off the potential for effective state tobacco control policy for many years. They do this in two ways. First, they give legislators political cover. By voting for a cigarette tax increase, they can say that they have supported a tobacco control measure, and it becomes more difficult for public health groups to put pressure on these legislators to support tobacco control measures in the future. Second, they make it more difficult to get major tobacco policy measures on the legislative agenda in the future and they devastate any potential for the most effective intervention in tobacco control: the creation of comprehensive, statewide tobacco control programs (which could otherwise be funded from cigarette tax revenues).

This is one reason why I cringe when I see groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids praising the Minnesota legislature's decision to balance its budget by increasing the cigarette tax as a huge public health victory. It's actually not a victory for public health. It's a devastating blow to the chances for any meaningful and effective state-level tobacco control for quite some time.

But of course, the more significant reason why I cringe is because I simply think it is wrong to balance the state's budget on the backs of smokers - period.

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