Monday, May 24, 2010

Coalition of Anti-Smoking Groups in North Carolina Expresses Interest in Maintaining Cigarette Tax Revenues and Consumption

The North Carolina Alliance for Health - which includes the state chapters of the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and American Cancer Society - issued a press release in which it expressed an interest in and commitment to the preservation of current levels of cigarette tax revenues.

In the press release, the Alliance boasted that despite claims by some opponents, increasing cigarette taxes will not result in large decreases in revenues over time because cigarette smoking will only drop by a little bit, thus maintaining the cigarette revenue stream over time.

According to the press release: "As the legislative session begins, a report released today by a tobacco policy expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago confirms that a significant cigarette tax increase in North Carolina will produce a large, sustained increase in state tobacco tax revenues. Several states, including South Carolina, have recently raised tobacco taxes to deal with budget shortfalls. "This report joins the mountain of evidence showing why raising the cigarette tax is exactly what North Carolina needs to help tackle our budget problems," said Pam Seamans, Executive Director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health. "As we saw last week in South Carolina more states are increasing the cigarette tax to raise revenue and protect vital programs like education and law enforcement from deep cuts, while preventing kids from smoking and saving lives at the same time," she said." ...

"To maintain, or even increase, our cigarette tax revenues over time, North Carolina can take a number of additional actions, in addition to periodically increasing the cigarette tax rates," said Pam Seamans, Executive Director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health. "We are one of only three states that does not have a tax stamp on cigarettes and could implement high-tech tax stamp to ensure that taxes are paid and to prevent cigarette smuggling and tax evasion," she said. "This will become especially important now that South Carolina has increased its cigarette tax to 57 cents."

The Rest of the Story

This press release from the North Carolina Alliance for Health is quite revealing. Instead of calling on measures to substantially reduce cigarette smoking so that cigarette tax revenues decline over time, the Alliance is instead committed to making sure that cigarette consumption does not drop too much, thereby threatening cigarette revenues.

It seems disturbing to me that a coalition of groups whose interest is supposed to be in protecting the public's health is instead primarily interested in using cigarette smokers as a source of funding for state programs and is committed to preserving the level of cigarette smoking so as not to threaten that funding.

This story reveals one of the chief problems associated with the anti-smoking groups' indiscriminate and knee-jerk support for all cigarette tax increases: the use of cigarette tax revenue to fund essential government programs makes the state dependent upon continued smoking to fund those programs, and it removes any incentive for programs that would substantially reduce smoking levels.

If the Alliance wanted to promote a program in North Carolina that would substantially reduce cigarette smoking, it can no longer do it because it has now committed itself to preserving the level of cigarette tax revenue in the state. That goal is simply not consistent with a goal of seriously reducing smoking rates. You can't have it both ways.

But having it both ways is exactly what the North Carolina Alliance for Health - and most of the other anti-smoking groups in the country - are trying to do. On the one hand, they argue the need to raise cigarette taxes in every state in order to fund essential government programs. On the other hand, they are unwilling to support major initiatives that would make a serious dent in smoking, and therefore threaten the tax initiatives they are supporting.

In doing so, these "anti-smoking" groups are actually acting like groups whose primary priority is to preserve levels of cigarette consumption, rather than to decrease them.

What these groups are saying is: "We want to raise cigarette taxes because it's a politically easy and popular victory which will make us feel good and make it easy for us to say that we're doing something to reduce cigarette consumption. But fortunately, the impact on smoking is quite small, and these tax initiatives won't seriously put a dent in cigarette consumption. We will spend our time and resources working on the limited initiative - taxation - which creates a quick and easy political victory. But we won't devote our time and resources to true health reform, which would substantially reduce cigarette smoking."

The rest of the story is that when it really comes down to it, these anti-smoking groups don't really want to seriously reduce cigarette smoking. What they want is to have cigarette smokers continue to smoke, thus allowing these groups to take advantage of those smokers - and the tax revenues that they generate - for political gain and feel-good victories for these health groups.

It truly is a "win, win" proposition for the anti-smoking groups. On the one hand, they score an easy political victory on the backs of smokers, being able to say that they are doing something and raising revenue at the same time. On the other hand, they obviate the need the do something meaningful to substantially reduce smoking rates in their state. Doing so would threaten the very programs that are being supported by these tax increases.

With their knee-jerk support for cigarette taxes as a source of revenue to close budget shortfalls, the anti-smoking groups are making the state - and themselves - dependent on continued high levels of cigarette smoking.

Smokers are quickly becoming critical supporters of state government. Without them, the budget collapses. The biggest winner? The tobacco companies, which profit from the essential end to any threat of major reductions in consumption of their products.

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