Thursday, October 24, 2013

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Argues that Continued High Levels of Smoking Should be Used to Assure Access to Early Childhood Education

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and several other anti-smoking groups have put forward the argument that instead of funding early childhood education as a budget priority, the federal government should tie education for low-income children to continued high levels of cigarette tax revenue.

These organization recently called for the expansion of early childhood education. But instead of suggesting that early childhood education is a budget priority that should be funded with existing revenue or by increasing taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, they argued that for poor children, such education should be tied to continuing high levels of cigarette sales, which would garner the tax revenues that they recommend using to pay for such education.

Among the organizations making the recommendation that early childhood education for low-income children should be tied to cigarette sales were the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Rest of the Story

In a sense, this is a perverse policy because it ties the future funding of early childhood education for low-income children to continued high levels of cigarette smoking. As such, it also reduces the incentive for the federal government to take any action which would substantially decrease cigarette sales. Any such intervention would threaten the solvency of the early childhood education program. In fact, the creation of this program of cigarette sales-dependent early childhood education nearly ensures that the government will not take any action to severely curtail smoking rates.

What the cigarette revenue should be used for is comprehensive tobacco control programs in all 50 states. These programs should include anti-smoking media campaigns, like the "truth" campaign. They should also include programs devoted to reducing the burden of smoking in communities of color. They should include the dissemination of "Pathways to Freedom" to every African American smoker. And they should focus on reducing disparities in smoking-related disease, not just in reducing the overall rates of smoking.

Addressing the problem of the nation's budget woes by balancing the budget on the backs of smokers, in the face of the decimation of the nation's tobacco control program and the absence of any significant government-funded services available to benefit smokers (including programs to encourage kids not to smoke and to help adults to quit), and in the presence of other viable options for raising the needed revenue such as taxing the wealthiest of the state's citizens or corporations, is not an appropriate public health policy.

What these anti-smoking groups are calling for is reaping $7 billion a year in additional revenues from smokers so that the government does not have to take any politically less popular measures to finance its budget (such as raising taxes on the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, rather than the poorest residents).

Rather than trying to restore the nation's tobacco prevention and cessation services, the health groups are essentially acting as accomplices in the decimation of tobacco control by accepting its demise and not calling for the massive proposed cigarette tax increase to be used, at least in part, to restore the program and services.

And this opportunity will not arise again any time soon. You don't have too many opportunities to raise taxes these days, so if you are going to do it, you ought to be pretty darn careful about how you choose to allocate the revenues. If you aren't spending the money, at least in part, to benefit those who are shouldering the burden of the payments, then the tax is truly regressive and discriminatory.

As Dr. Richard Wagner stated in his report critical of the use of tobacco taxes to fund state budget shortfalls: "Tobacco taxation is a severe form of tax discrimination whose victims reside primarily among the working classes and not professional people. It is tax discrimination against people of modest means for the benefit of the well-to-do."

I think this discriminatory effect can be mitigated by allocating the revenues from the tax to benefit those who are paying the tax (such as providing for cessation services, tobacco prevention programs, smoking education, medical treatment for smoking-related diseases, and increased research on treatments for the diseases which we are so dismal in treating). However, this is not what the health groups are calling for. Instead, they seem content to have the money used simply to balance the budget, and to allow the decimated state tobacco control programs to remain in shambles.

The rest of the story is that the actions of these anti-smoking groups is a major victory for the wealthiest corporations and citizens, who are now protected from having to do their share to make up for the budget shortfall, or misplaced priorities, that denies early childhood education for lower-income children.

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